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.

 

 

Something Rotten in the Local Church

Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 3.13.29 PM In the midst of conflict within the local church the first thing we need to understand is that we are never promised a clean, unspotted, unblemished church (Ephesians 5:27). The bible repeatedly makes the case that the local church on earth will be broken and blemished until Christ presents us clean and spotless.

Therefore, when we encounter brokenness in the local church our response is not to run the other direction, complain, or grow angry at the institution. If we are Christians, then we believe the bible, and the bible says we are imperfect. The crux for the Christian is how we respond, then, to the imperfect church family of which we are a part.

As humans we can be tempted to respond in a few different ways to conflict within the local church. Philippians 4:1-9 has a clear pathway for how Christians walk through conflict.

"I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you."

1. We can be tempted to speculate: Philippians 4 begins with Paul naming two individuals in the church at Philippi who were disagreeing in the Lord. We are not told what the nature of their conflict was. We are not told who brought it first to anyone's attention. We are told very little, in fact, of the details of the situation. Paul thought it important to not name the specifics of the situation. God ordained that godly men would lead the church as elders and that the body would submit to them as under-shepherds knowing they know specifics of things we might never know. This is a good and safe place for the Christian.

In verse 7 Paul says, "And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." Paul is saying there's a peace that passes all kinds of speculation. It's a peace the world cannot give. It's a peace that even knowledge cannot give. No matter how hard we grasp for the details of a situation, they cannot give the peace that only God can give. When we are tempted to speculate here, let's entrust our questions to God and ask for a peace that passes the limited answers we're given.

2. We can be tempted to judge: Paul begins this chapter with the conflict, but he quickly follows it up with the truth that these women have "labored side by side with [him] in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of the fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life." What we know is there are some faithful women who have encountered the brokenness of life on earth as humans. But it doesn't change the fact that these women labored hard alongside the other early Christians.

When the temptation comes to judge, remember the faithfulness that Paul commends. Is there any perfect leader or Christian? No. But commend the faithfulness of all. Flee from the temptation to judge the process, people, or church. Commend faithfulness.

3. We can be tempted to be divisive: Paul says in verse 4, "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God." Paul is saying in the midst of this time be reasonable, don't be anxious, make your requests known to God. Do it with thanksgiving. Exercise gratefulness for what the Lord has done and is doing. Fight anxiety with the truth of the word. Be so full of the Holy Spirit in this time that it is "known to everyone."

Instead of being divisive, trying to cause division, discord, creating "teams," or pitting people against one another, rejoice in the Lord always. And again, because it's so important, rejoice. Fight the temptation to cause division in God's church.

4. We can be tempted to gossip or listen to gossip: Paul says in verses 8, "Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." Paul is saying in response to this situation where there are unknowns, conflict, and a lack of understanding, do this instead. Think about the things that are true, just, pure, lovely, commendable, etc..

Paul isn't saying to trick ourselves into being and feeling great. He is saying, though, to lift our eyes up to what is eternally and foundationally true, God Himself, the most true, most commendable, most lovely of everything. Do not be tempted to sit in a pit of gossip with other speculators, panning for the nuggets of curiosity. Climb out of that pit, trust those he's put in place to lead your local church, and flee from gossip.

Maybe you're in the middle of conflict right now. Or maybe you're not in the middle of it, but your ears are juicy for the details of it. I hope and pray this passage encourages and challenges you as it has for me. Let's all aspire to live quieter lives, trusting God to build His church wholly.

Please Keep This Between Us

Please don't tell anyone else this, but I wanted to process something with you. If you could just keep it between you and me? I assume you know I wouldn't want it to get around, I want to make sure people really understand my side of things and that can only happen if I communicate about it directly. You understand right? I just tried to emotionally manipulate you. Did you fall for it?

There's a chair in the corner of my office at the church were I work. It's a shade of gold I can't quite name and its fabric is velour of sorts. Every week someone cries on that chair. Not a week has gone by that someone has not cried on that chair. Sometimes I'm the one crying on it. Often the person sitting there asks me to just keep this conversation between them and me, and every single time I have to say, "I'm sorry, I can't promise that."

There are some who are contractually obligated to keep secrets—lawyers, counselors, mobsters—but within the local church, "Just between you and me," is bedfellows with its sister, Gossip. They seem at odds, but they are actually two sides of the same coin.

Gossip wants to control the narrative by embellishing it, the other wants to control the narrative by being the only one to talk about it. Gossip wants to make the story interesting, the other wants to make the story one-sided. Neither reflect the words and meditations of a heart pleasing to God.

Friends, sometimes we show discretion in what we share to protect someone's heart, but if our aim is to craft a narrative or limit the narrative to our side only, we're lying, and God calls lying is a sin.

Here are three truths when we're tempted to hide within the narrative we've crafted:

1. God owns and knows the whole truth and we cannot hide from him.

Whenever I've been tempted to tell someone to keep something between us, I have to ask myself the question: "Whose narrative are you trying to present?" Sometimes there are a lot of moving pieces and we're not ready to make announcements public yet. But most of the time when I've used those words, I was trying to control the order in which people heard something, or I was trying to make sure my perspective was valued as sort of a secret treasure I entrusted to someone to hold.

The problem is, though, these things are too heavy for mere humans to hold. We weren't made to hold the weight of secrets. One of the first things humanity did was try to hide from God—but we can't hide from God! Whatever things we're doing to protect ourselves are as laughable as standing behind fig leaves in front of the Almighty Creator of those fig leaves. Controlling a story, crafting the perfect narrative, and trying to make people see things from our perspective are empty efforts.

God sees you, He knows your heart, He knows what you're protecting, and He knows why. Walk in truth and wholeness with your brothers and sisters, and Him. He can handle the whole mess of it all.

2. God orchestrates a better story than we can tell or keep from telling.

Without exception, every single time someone has said to me, "Please don't tell anyone this," the unveiling of their fears or concerns has been part of the working toward healing, redemption, and reconciliation in the body. So many of us are blindly walking around ignorant of our issues, complacent in our efforts, or unaware of problems. We need the iron sharpening of one another in the body of Christ. Here's why: the end of our story (which is really the beginning) is a better one than we can imagine in our moment of pain.

When we're blinded by the presence of pain, uncertainty, or misunderstanding, we can't imagine a good ending to the story. We just need to vent, to process, to express ourselves. But God is writing a better story and He's orchestrating all the smallest players to be a part of it.

If you must talk about something, talk about it with the intention of holistic healing, and talk first and only with the people involved in a godly solution—not with those jumping on a party bus heading straight for Division Canyon.

3. God has put His children in a body with different perspectives, different histories, and different gifts.

When we ask someone to keep something "just between us," we're asking them to stand on a desert island with us. We're asking them to alienate themselves from their covering and their counsel and join in solidarity with us away from something else. Friends, this is a sin. God always comes forward to us. He always initiates. He always invites in. He moves toward us in reconciliation—and his design for us is to do the same.

God puts us in the body of Christ to express those aspects of Himself to one another. He puts His cards on the table, all of them. There is nothing hidden with Him and in Him we live and move and have our being. He is the whole story—and He puts us along side one another in community to work out the expressions of Him on earth.

Don't live in a factionalistic society. We have an enemy, and our brothers and sisters in Christ aren't him.

. . .

My parents always used to say to my brothers and me, "There are three sides to every story, yours, his, and the truth," and the adage still stands. Your perspective is valid, but it is not the whole story. Trust God with the whole story, yours, theirs, and all of ours.

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These Extraordinary Pains and the Ordinary Days

G.K. Chesterton said, “The most extraordinary thing in the world is an ordinary man and an ordinary woman and their ordinary children," but we don't much like that do we? It's been a weekend where I've been laying low for multiple reasons, the principle of which is I miscarried again and the secondary of which is I slipped on black ice and have a swollen scraped knee to prove it. I was meant to be at my brother from another mother's wedding this weekend in New York, but canceled my flight at the last moment because the church family here had a week for the books. It's really been seven months for the books—my books at least—but this was the culmination of it, and when your job is to shepherd, you don't abdicate when the storms howl around the flock.

Nate still can't find full-time work.

I came home from the member meeting at church yesterday and fell into bed and cried the sort of tears we reserve for death of a loved one or agony of the deepest kind. The sort where you hyperventilate and your husband can't fix anything so he just lies beside you and rubs small circles into your back. I mostly cried but said words too, words I probably didn't mean and some words I probably did.

Half our friends say the first year of marriage is the hardest, but we think marriage is a breeze, it's all the other things that are the hardest.

He read the Chesterton quote aloud to me a few weeks ago and we've come around and around to it, in these horrible ordinary days. Both of us have believed the lie that if you work hard things will go well for you, if you honor those around you, you will be honored, if you pursue your passions, you will do your passions. We are unafraid of hard work, honoring those ahead of us, and the pursuit of passions. But what we have found is vanity of vanities, it's all vanities. These things themselves are not useless pastimes, but they certainly aren't the guarantee of extraordinary lives. My pastor in Texas said once, "You can't put God in your debt," and also we can't put life in our debt either.

Circumstances are not what we planned, nothing about this year has been what we hoped for or thought we'd gain. Here we have been small and faithful people with secreted hopes for greatness. But that is not the Kingdom is it? The backwards upside down kingdom.

Tonight we lit candles and ate pizza from a box, and joked about how this might be our last meal and when we should put the house on the market. I have emailed a realtor on the east coast and Nate has put in months of 60 hour weeks applying and interviewing. There is nothing glamorous in these ordinary days. They are beautiful because they are life, but they are painful, disastrous even, and not at all what we thought they would be.

Earlier this year in the three month whirlwind, where everything good was happening and as quickly as it possibly could, I remember saying to the Lord, "It is so good to feel your love so tangibly these days, but I hope I remember it when everything good isn't happening." I think a lot about Job these days. I have walked through many painful months and years before, but never saw myself as kin to him, but now I do. The difference is I trust God in these pains, and though he slay me, still I will trust him. And it makes all the difference.

For the ordinary people in the painful ordinary days, trusting Him—and not our plan—is the extraordinary difference.

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Eight Life-Changing Things Someone Taught Me

There have been seven or eight lessons I have learned over the course of my life that have altered my thinking in profound ways. They have become markers of what Paul calls, “Glory to glory.” They marked a step forward, not in closer or better union with Christ, but in closer and better understanding of him. Today I thought of sharing them briefly with you. A love for the local church: This was pressed deep into me before I even understood the theology of the church. My pastor in New York wooed me to a love for the local, to what God was doing right here in front of me. To the people with whom I walked and lived and fought and fought for. We cannot say we love Christ and not love what he loves best. He loves the Church best. He gave His life for her. I learned to live and die for the Church.

To not rob others of their suffering: This came from a friend during a season of deep pain and sadness in my life. He could have relieved it, I suppose, but said instead to another friend that he would not rob me of my sufferings. It took me a very, very long time to understand what that meant, and it took more suffering and more observation of suffering to understand. But here is what it taught me: God doesn’t waste anything, not suffering, not difficulty, not pain. He is working and willing and waiting and faithfully attending to his children in the midst of it. There are no “meantimes” in the Kingdom of God.

To be a “There you are!” person, instead of a “Here I am,” person: My pastor in New York also taught me there was real value in showing true interest in another person and their life. To not stand on the sidelines waiting to be approached by others with a “Here I am, come find me,” attitude. OR to enter a room and be the life and center of the party with the exclamation, “Here I am!” But instead to enter a room and find others first. To be the first to ask questions about their lives and the last to talk about yourself. This lesson, for a shy, wallflower like me, was life-changing. God pursues us like that!

God is not surprised by my doubts, my questions, my fears, or life: My pastor in Texas taught me this and it was one of the lessons that has been the foundation of my faith for five years. I spent years and years doubting my life, my choices, my faith, my repentance. All of this because I somehow believed I was in charge of it all and God was shaking his head in disappointment at me. If, though, God is in charge of everything, that means he isn’t surprised by anything—and he isn’t waiting me to mess up some cosmic plan. He’s shepherding, giving, guiding, loving, hearing, and faithful every step of the way.

This gift is for this day: Elizabeth Elliot taught me this. She hammered into my little head that not only was today a gift, but whatever I had today was a gift, and whatever I didn’t have today was also a gift. “God still holds tomorrow,” she said. This lesson reminded me time and time again over the years that today held enough disappointment and treasure as it was. There was no use longing for tomorrow and ignoring what God wanted to teach me today.

Love Jesus and People more than things: I will never forget sitting in the living room of some friends back in New York and hearing the father talk of how if his kids squabbled over a toy or some plaything, they would immediately rid their home of the item. They would not sell it because they wouldn’t attach worth to some thing which had caused conflict. He wanted to teach his kids to love Jesus and People more than things. Shortly after that I began to get rid of almost everything I owned and began to discipline myself to not worship the idol of sentimentality or wistfulness. I wanted everything I had been stewarded to reek of the fragrance of God’s own. If it didn’t, I got rid of it.

Expectations are resentments waiting to happen: This from another pastor in my church in Texas. I heard it at a time when all my faith and trust in God was shattered because I had put all my expectations in certain things instead of in Him alone. I wanted expressions of His goodness, not simply his goodness. I wanted gifts of lavish attention, without his simple affection. When I began to see the discrepancy, it became immediately clear where my doubt in him was coming from. I resented him, plain and simple. When I began to simply hope in His character and not at all in his gifts, everything changed for me. Nothing about life itself changed, but everything about the way I saw him changed.

This are just a few of the small things that have changed me throughout life. If you’ve known me for any length of time, you’ve probably heard me talk about one or all of them. I hope even more, though, that you’ve seen me live them. It would be a waste if all we did with theology was talk about it. These men and women, though their faithfulness, taught me in small ways huge lessons. This is the last lesson I have learned: To be faithful to God, not an outcome.

I doubt very much most of these people would know their small acts of faithfulness would have life-changing effects on me. But they did. My prayer today is two-fold: that you would find those benchmark moments in your life today, and that you would go back and thank the people who taught you those lessons. And second, that you would know you are being watched and studied by others in their walk. What we say and model and teach matters—and what a good gift that is from God!