Seven Ways We Fail and Get Back Up Again

The first time the word sin is mentioned in Scripture is not at the moment when sin entered the world, but the moment before the fracturing of two brothers, Cain and Abel. After Cain brought his offering to the Lord (which, for whatever reason known to them and not clearly to us, displeased the Lord), the Lord said, "Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it” (Genesis 4).

That phrase, "Its desire is contrary for you," has always stuck to me like an autumn burr on a wool sweater.

There are so many things in our lives pressing us back, crouching at our doors, slinking in unforeseen gaps and spaces, taking up room, both invited and uninvited. Sin is not a passive agent, but if we are passive, it can rule over us. There are so many areas in my life where I am the passive agent regarding sin. I say something smartly but intended to get my point across: sin. I leave something unfinished in hopes someone else will notice and do it: sin. I cite needs and desires as my primary motivator: sin. I avoid dealing with my emotions, letting them build and bubble over: sin. Wherever I look, sin is crouching at my door. 

A pastor at our church once said, "We don't get over our sin by constantly looking at our sin, we get over it by looking at the work of Jesus on the cross." This sounds really good, but if we don't make the cross both deeply personal and deeply practical, it can be difficult to see the ramifications of the work of Jesus in all the small places where sin reigns supreme in our lives. We can apply the gospel to the Big Sins, but overlook its power over the "little foxes that ruin the vineyards" (SoS 2:15).

Nate and I have been talking about some work God did in us as singles and now as a married couple, ways we have recognized the power of sin to creep in and the ways it has ruled us (and still does in so many ways), and exercises we do to press back and bounce our eyes to the cross. These are not grand theological gestures, they are small things designed to teach us restraint, remind us to submit, to fear God, of the bounty of God, and of the joy found completely in him. 

Over the next few weeks I'll be doing a series of posts on seven ways we try to rule over the crouching presence of sin in our home. I'll expound on our methods for engaging the gospel in these areas of our lives, the ways we fail, and our hope for the Church more and more. 

None of these things are done perfectly. In none of these areas have we arrived. And in every one of these areas we are prone to wander, to fail, and to forget. One of the best blessings of the gospel, I think, is the fact that it never changes. When I fail, forget, and wander—the cross and the empty tomb never change. The point is not to do these things perfectly, but to actually let the imperfection of my doing them remind me of how much I need Jesus every single day. We fail often and regularly at all of these, but: 

1. We choose reading, writing, and talking instead of screen-time in order to engage and flourish as flesh and blood humans. 

2. We practice not a work/life balance, but a work/rest model in order to see God as our Creator, Redeemer, and Joy. 

3. We eat whole foods, in-season, and locally if possible, in order to care for our bodies and the earth well. 

4. We practice hospitality not as an event or social engagement, but as a way to sacrifice ourselves, our time, and our energy, for the flourishing of others.

5. We choose the way of peace instead of violence and listening over making ourselves heard, as a way to remind ourselves we are not omnipotent, omnipresent, or omniscient. 

6.  We eat meals together in order to press back against the culture of busy, quick, fast, and convenient. 

7. We endeavor to live using restraint in our finances, not so we can build bigger savings accounts or retirement funds, but so we can serve others more freely today.

I often get questions about the way we practice Sabbath as New Testament Christians or why we choose to have a young man living with us or what made us decide to not have a television, and more, and my hope is that in writing more on these specific intents, I will be able to answer those questions more fully. None of these things are without theological purpose and very real—sometimes painful—sacrifice. That's on purpose. Not because we're masochists, but because we're Christians living in a hostile-to-the-way-of-Jesus-environment. It's never been easier, more convenient to not carry the cross and follow Him. So how, in 2017, in the suburbs, without children, with paying jobs, with every gadget available to us, do we say, "No, sin, you will not rule over us. We're already the children of a King." 

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The series will be tagged: Seven Ways so if you're looking for the whole thing at some point, just click on that tag at the bottom of the page. 

The Membership of the Living: the common anxieties

Before I set aside my phone for the night yesterday, a friend and I were texting. We're two friends who try to be faithful in the life God has given to each of us, in the season in which we find ourselves, to the church to which we've been covenanted, to the people we love and who love us. Anyone looking in from the outside would probably say the same about each of us. They might see a few places we could be righted or nudged forward in, more restrained about and more disciplined in, but I think, overall, most folks would view us as two well-adjusted, acquainted with sorrow, faith-filled women trying to live within the goodness of the gospel day to day. 

Yet most of our conversations are not full of accolades about ourselves or pats on the other's back or lists of how well we're each doing. Mostly they're full of confession of brokenness, fears, anxieties, discomforts. They're usually brimming with the asking of precise questions and then really listening to the answers, rarely giving counsel to one another (although she is by profession one and I am not without plenty to give), but mostly just listening. 

Last night I vaguely confessed some anxiety and she asked me to name my top three and, dear readers, I'm going to share them with you here without regret.

My first is that I will never be a good enough wife (although my husband has never and would never say that to me); my second is that my body will always betray me, no matter how healthily I eat, how faithfully I exercise, and how tenderly I treat it; and my third is that I have peaked in life, ministry, faithfulness, writing, and it's all downhill from here. These are the anxieties that arrest my soul. And then my friend shared hers. They weren't the same as mine, but they were nearly the same; the first having to do with love and marriage, and the want of it, the second having to do with the frailty of the body, and the third having to do with living in light of eternity. 

It occurred to me that most of us, if we're honest, probably struggle with these three main anxieties: the anxiety of being loved, the anxiety of being alive, and the anxiety of being faithful. Fill in the blank of your anxieties and my guess is they will fall somewhere in there somehow. We humans are more alike than we like to pretend in our individualistic world. 

I have been thinking a lot about listening recently. How good and right it is to listen well and how awfully bad we are at it. Most of us are thinking of the next thing to say before the other has said anything at all. Many of us only ask questions to ascertain information for ourselves or to turn a conversation in the direction we want it to go. Some treat conversation as an opportunity to interrupt or monologue or catch the other in a moment of poor logic, frailty, fear, or false theology. 

Recently my husband and I were listening to a friend talk about a hard thing that happened in her life and I wanted to interject counsel or a good idea or to give quick comfort, and my husband only said, "I'm sorry this happened. It must have been hard." And then he was quiet, listening longer, letting our friend speak freely, without caveat, without question, without interruption. I thought to myself, I want to be more like this. Rarely do we stop to consider how alike most of us all are, deeply wanting to be loved (or even liked), deeply desiring the full experience of being alive, and deeply wanting to be found faithful. And how most of us just want the comfort of another person acknowledging the pain of life on this orb, and then simply saying, "I'm sorry. I think I get it a little, but not all the way, but I want to sit here with you in it." 

I just finished rereading Wendell Berry's essay Health is Membership from The Art of the Commonplace again yesterday. It's one of my favorites and it ends with this short illustration from when Berry's brother was in the hospital undergoing a triple-bypass operation. The whole essay is wonderful and should be read by anyone who is alive, but I wanted to share the last few paragraphs with you today: 

The most moving, to me, happened in the waiting room during John's surgery. From time to time a nurse from the operating room would come in to tell Carol what was happening. Carol, from politeness or bravery or both, always stood to receive the news, which always left us somewhat encouraged and somewhat doubtful. Carol's difficulty was that she had to suffer the ordeal not only as a wife but as one who had been a trained nurse. She knew, from her own education and experience, in how limited a sense open-heart surgery could be said to be normal or - routine.

Finally, toward the end of our wait, two nurses came in. The operation, they said, had been a success. They explained again what had been done. And then they said that after the completion of the bypasses, the surgeon had found it necessary to insert a "balloon pump" into the aorta to assist the heart. This possibility had never been mentioned, nobody was prepared for it, and Carol was sorely disappointed and upset. The two young women attempted to reassure her, mainly by repeating things they had already said. And then there was a long moment when they just looked at her. It was such a look as parents sometimes give to a sick or suffering child, when they themselves have begun to need the comfort they are trying to give.

And then one of the nurses said, "Do you need a hug?"
"Yes," Carol said.
And the nurse gave her a hug.
Which brings us to a starting place.

Listening can be a hug. Asking questions can be too. Confession can be. And mirroring confessions can be too. Conversation is an art. It is a commonplace one, but no less worth the attentiveness of a master artist and maybe worth it more than all the canvases of the world hanging in all the museums of the world. 

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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. 

Sowing in Tears: Vulnerable Bloggers and the Crushing Whirlwind of Fame

Nate and I first heard Andy Crouch talking about the relationship between authority and vulnerability on Mike Cosper's podcast, Cultivated, several months ago. I ordered Andy's book, Strong and Weak, immediately, Nate finished it a few weeks ago and I finished it this morning. If you've read anything by Andy, you know he's remarkably talented at communication and articulate in a way the church culture today needs. Today's thoughts are born from what I'm learning through Andy. 

In the past decade or so we've seen an uptick of tell-all, self-described Christian bloggers and storytellers, particularly women. There are some common themes in their writing: they're funny, they're sacrilegious in the sense that they'll talk about anything, they seem common, relatable, real. It's something that was missing in the buttoned up culture of Christianity most of us came from. And it's refreshing in a way. It also tastes like sewer water in a way. But it's refreshing until the sewer water aftertaste comes. Most of these tell-all bloggers have gone from Christian-lite to Universalism or embracing new doctrines, and eventually being famously farewelled. 

What is refreshing about it is there is a kind of vulnerability present in the beginning. Sure, it's from behind a keyboard in a house far away, but the writer is tapping out her treatise dressed in last night's pjs and yelling at the dog to stop barking and ran out of coffee yesterday, but plunks on with her piece. There's a vulnerability that's appealing about that: they're real people with real problems and probably have bed head too.

There's also a vulnerability that can be manipulative though. It's the sort that only opens the shades enough so the mess can be seen, but not enough that the writer is actually vulnerable. It costs nothing to tell you I'm writing this in my pjs with the dog barking at the neighbors and drinking chai tea wishing it was coffee. To be a tell-all blogger costs virtually nothing. We can wax eloquent about our reputation and how painful some people's comments can be, but most of us well-adjusted adults can still go to bed and sleep fine because all that cost is out there, not in here. 

To be truly vulnerable, there must be risk involved, and risk comes with the people closest to us, the ones who matter most to us. If we use vulnerability as a tool, or even a shield, the world sees us wield and we get our jollies from it, it's not real vulnerability. It's manipulation—gaining approval, gaining a following, gaining a title by being real, authentic, etc.. 

John says this, "He must increase, I must decrease," and that's an awfully difficult thing for any communicator or faithful worker of any sort in this world to do today. By virtue of our work, we run the risk of increase. How does one decrease—embrace true vulnerability, the sort that involves risk with those closest to us and never becomes a platform on which our ministry is based, because our boast is Christ alone—and yet also be faithful? Especially because one of our callings as Christians is to show the world we are not better than them, that Jesus came for the sick, and that we all are in equal need of Jesus. How do we be weak and in our weakness become strong, without outshining the strongest One of all? 

I don't know the answer to that, not fully. But I think it looks a little like saying "I don't know" when asked questions we really don't have the answers to. It looks like saying less when we might be expected to say more. I think we can expect some growth, perhaps explosive, perhaps incremental, but we should also expect to be able to say "I can't be faithful to love Jesus and people, and have things in my life I refuse to lose." I think it means never getting to hob-nob with the big folks and maybe never getting noticed by anyone but the Master of the house (Who's waiting, with joy, to say "Well done, my servant."). 

If you're reading blogs or books or going to conferences and gushing over how vulnerable the communicators are being, ask yourself what the cost to them truly might be. You probably don't even know, and might not even be able to see until decades later when their kids are grown or their marriages have been through hell or they confess they've become an addict of drugs or alcohol or their ministry falls out from underneath them. 

. . .

There was a period last year when everywhere I looked in my life there was pain and loss and I could barely breathe as I walked through it. Yet I kept writing through it, trying to find redemption quickly. I thought it I could redeem something bad quickly enough, then it would become good. But a wise friend and fellow writer said this to me: 

"I have often marveled at how detachedly you write about all you're going through on your blog. Seriously, though, I wonder if writing about all this for the public while in the middle of it serves to exacerbate the emotional distancing. Writing inherently distances us from our inner life simply through the process of externalizing and reifying it. I wonder if this might contribute to that kind of detachment."

The cost to my writing vulnerably was unseen except to those who knew me personally. It might have seemed to you that the cost was in people knowing my junk, but that's never felt like much of a cost to me. The real cost was to my soul. Writing quickly about what was going on was taking a great toll on my emotions, spirit, and mind. I had to take a break. And I did. And it was really helpful to me, and I hope, really helpful to you, the reader. 

If you read and love a blog, a book, an author, or a speaker, and marvel at how much they just get you, they feel kindred to you, ask yourself at what cost is their story coming. You're not responsible for how they wield their gifts, but you are responsible for how you wield your listening and worshipping. The truth is real vulnerability takes time, a lot of it, and there probably won't be a celebration but a crucifixion that follows it.  

One of my new favorite writers is Anne Kennedy, and she said this about these sorts of leaders: "Don’t be fooled. The woman reaps what she sows. Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy, but those who sow the wind won’t get anything back but a destructive whirlwind on the last day." 

I want to be one who sows in tears—quiet, real, deep, agonizing, and vulnerable tears. 

 

Choosing Churches // Challenges for the newly married

20150625-018-593 The next challenge for the newly married is one I think affects those who have been married a lot longer too, but the newly married face it in a fresh and shocking way. It is the challenge of finding and agreeing on a local church.

When I was unmarried I chose the church I wanted to go to, even moving to the opposite side of the United States to become part of The Village Church. I had immense flexibility in the choice, theology, worship style, size, and amount of involvement I wanted in a church. I considered each those things heavily, but the choice was mine. When I met Nate, I met him through my church community, in the foyer of my church building, and we were married surrounded by our church family. Even though we were about to move to Denver for my job at a new church, our local church, the local church, was very much a factor and part of our relationship.

Imagine my shock, then, when we moved across the country again, and it was taking us seemingly forever to settle on a church. I was blindsided by how difficult all of this would be. I think it's partially because both Nate and I take God's word very seriously and soberly in regard to membership, worship, community, discipline, eldership, etc., and we don't treat any decision having to do with those components lightly, but what I didn't expect, and was most surprised by, was how much we actually clashed in these areas. There was an illusion that because we met and married in the same church, we agreed on everything therein and would forevermore. But we didn't.

One day, in the car on the way home from yet another church we were visiting in August, I wept bitterly and my sweet husband bore the brunt of my outburst. My case was this: If I was still single, even if it wasn't ideal, and even if I had to drive 45 minutes, I would have settled on a church six months earlier. I would have just gone to the good-enough one instead of searching for the one one or both of us had in mind. I wouldn't have squandered my time, I wouldn't have grown stagnate in faith or community, and I would have just sacrificed whatever it took, just to hear the word among the same brothers and sisters every week. This conversation led to some more painful conversations about why I hadn't said anything earlier. Which led to more conversations about why we both struggled to speak up on our own behalf about very much at all (which I'll write about another day this week). What this conversation revealed was there were  assumptions being made on both of our parts about what would be best for our family in regard to a local church, based on partial information from one or the other.

I wish I could say we've found victory in this area, but I think this will be an ongoing conversation for the rest of our marriage. Committing to one local church won't lift the issue at hand, which is a communication one, but it also won't solve each of our individual desires and beliefs when it comes to a local church. We both need to make sacrifices, sacrifices I in particular have never made before in regard to a church, and sacrifices he in particular will need to revise in our marriage, because they weren't present in his previous one. In the meantime, here are some things we are learning:

1. Church baggage is real

We have each gone to many different churches, which means double the history. We have had great experiences and bad ones, good ones and hard ones. If you name a denomination, though, we have a bit of experience with it, and this informs our future direction. He might have had a great experience with one denominations or theology, and I might have had a terrible one, and we have to talk about that, without assuming the other understands or empathizes with it. I know this can sound very consumeristic in a sense and I don't want in any way to communicate we are consumers of the local church, but there is a very real choice in the church we go to, and we all have very real reasons for those choices. My reasons are not the same as Nate's and instead of assuming they are, I ought to assume they are not.

2. Understanding of Theology and Practice change and grow

With joy and confidence I can say what I believe now about God has changed from what I believed about him fifteen years ago, ten years ago, two years ago, and so on. God has not changed, but my understanding of him has. It has been informed by my circumstances, by deeper study of his word, by teaching from others, and by experiences. This is a beautiful thing, but it can be a difficult thing in marriage if one of you has changed and the other feels blindsided by it. We left Denver feeling very disillusioned with some things and those things in particular informed Nate's desire to attend a very different kind of church when we moved, whereas I felt very afraid of any additional change at all. Until we talked about that, though, we were both operating with two different values and it caused me to feel terrified of any church and him to feel very powerless in leading our family. We had to hash through our fears and our sin, and mistrust of God's sovereignty, for us to come at finding a church with open hands. Our understanding of theology hasn't changed much in a year and a half, but our understanding of practice has, and this is what we've been blindsided by.

3. What we think we need and what we need are two different things

I was standing in the kitchen this week chopping garlic and a song came on from my playlist that threw me back to a moment of worship at my church in Texas. I knew exactly where I was standing, who was beside me, and what the Lord was teaching me in that moment of unhindered worship. It was a painful time in life for me and I felt so humbled by the Holy Spirit that He would gift me with an experience like that, just when I needed it. The last time I felt that was when I went back to Texas a year ago this month and wept through the entire service. It was profound in a way I cannot explain to others and happens rarely enough that I remember it when it does. I love my church family there, and I love my church there. I have felt the lack of her more deeply this year than I've felt the lack of anything else in my life. I am constantly tempted to believe that I need to be with her again to ever feel whole in church again.

If I'm not careful, I can begin to believe I need certain aspects of a local church, preferring my self and my own needs, over my husband's, or over the local church herself. I need a particular kind of worship. I need a pastor of a certain age. I need a homegroup with a certain type of person. I need a church of a certain size. I need. I need. I need. But what if God doesn't give?

If I believe that God gives us exactly what we need when we need it, and no more or less, then I can trust that what we have today is exactly what we need. God isn't skimpy with his gifts. What I also have to realize, though, is within marriage, Nate and I have different needs, but God is meeting them in the same way. This can be a real challenge in marriage when it feels like in every scenario someone is the clear winner and someone the loser (I'll talk more about that another day this week), but when I stop thinking of my needs needing to trump his needs, I'm able to see how God might be meeting both of our needs, or the needs of others—even in a local church that didn't check any of the boxes we both desired when we moved here.

I promise you it doesn't feel as glorious as that moment several years ago in the sanctuary of my church, tears streaming down my face, the rushing desire in me to give all to Him, but it is the result of that moment. Worship says, "I place all my needs at Your feet, because you're better than all the things I think I need," and then it gets up and actually does it.

. . . .

Finding a new local church as a newly married couple can be fuel for some very real fires, especially since you're probably doing it without the safety of a church community around you. I used to be able to recommend ways of doing it, but think if there's anything this year has taught me, it's that there's no prescription for this. It's hard. And that hardness can actually lead to really good things in your marriage if you'll let it. Communicate. Repent. Confess. Attempt.

And, be like my husband, who several times this year saw how the weekly searching for a church was actually hurting me more than helping me, and encouraged us to be at peace staying home for a day. It is not a good ongoing pattern, but I think Jesus was okay with hiding sometimes, with running away from the crowds. I think he's okay with it and understands it, and it might be his good gift to a marriage that needs to remember that he alone is the source.