Friendship is Messy Beautiful

The other night we had some friends over and the topic of conversation turned to how well our current theological culture seems to major on theology, polity, and male/female relationships, but what a terrible job we do at understanding Biblical friendship. We might have a few good friendships, but talking about them, navigating them, being truly God-honoring (instead of self-honoring) in them, seems to be not of great concern. We major more on what not to do and how not to be a friend to certain people, different genders, other season of lifers, than we do on what to do. 

Last summer Christine Hoover, author of The Church Planting Wife and From Good to Grace, sent me her upcoming manuscript, Messy, Beautiful Friendship, and I loved it. It's a book I want women everywhere to read. To know a woman is to know someone who struggles in friendship (it may be the same for men, but I know it is true for women). How much is too much? How little? Am I enough? Is she enough? Is God enough? Did I say too much? Too little? Who is trustworthy? Who can I confide in? Who can I be vulnerable with? Who can I cry alongside? Those are tough questions and Christine does a beautiful job of unpacking them in a way driven by the truths of the gospel, while being vulnerable about her own struggles, sins, and story. 

Messy, Beautiful Friendship releases into the world today and if this is an area in which you struggle, I hope you will consider reading it. I was deeply encouraged by it and I pray you will be too. 

Below is a post Christine wrote for Sayable to give you a taste of what's in her new book. Enjoy!

Seeds of Encouragement, by Christine Hoover  

My brother-in-law Travis, a farmer, daily dips his hands in the fertile south Texas soil that is his family’s very provision. In the current season, the realized hope of summer harvest has past, the remnants of harvested crops have been destroyed, and now the soil he sifts in his hands has once again taken center stage. Alongside his farmer-father and his farmer-uncles, he has already turned, tilled, leveled, and molded the soil into neat rows and borders, preparing ready receptacles for seeds. These spring days are for fertilizing--acres and acres must be covered, and then acres and acres must be implanted with various species of seeds: sorghum, sugar cane, cotton, sesame, or cabbage.

Their work--the daily wrestling with the soil--is circadian and perennial yet has only ever just begun. After planting, they will scrupulously monitor the soil, coaxing it with aeration, searching it for even the smallest of weeds, scrutinizing it for signs of pests or worms. And then they will wait, giving time and space for the sun and the rain and the mysterious and miraculous work of seeds becoming sprouts becoming stalks.

This is hard work, and the hardest part is the waiting.

A farmer, perhaps more than most, knows something about faith. He knows he must work with the unseen end in mind. He knows he must value steady work more than fruitfulness. He knows how diligently he must watch over his growing crop, quick to rid the stalks of pests and weeds. But most of all, he knows of his need for others and their need for him, because the work is long and often uncertain.

As Travis speaks about farming, it strikes me how often he mentions his surrounding farming community. He speaks of relying on his dad and uncles, who have more experience; he speaks of relying on common farming knowledge that’s been passed down through generations; and he speaks of relying on the larger farming community: “When you don’t know what to do, if you ask around, someone is going to help you out.”

When he was first learning how to combat weeds, he says, he went row-by-row and hacked them off at the stem. His dad came behind him and pointed out his mistake: “That weed will be just as tall in a week if you don’t chop it out at the root.” A lesson regarding sin, certainly, but even more a lesson of how invaluable the help and exhortation is traded between those working by faith.  

As I consider the faithful life in comparison to the farming life, a little jolt of recognition goes through me: “Let us consider how to spur one another on to love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24). The faith-filled life, like the farming life, is fueled by community. Paul tells us what specifically this fuel looks like: “Let us encourage one another” (Hebrews 10:25).

I imagine in his first planting season, Travis felt uncertain and inadequate. I imagine he felt this way because it’s so often how I feel as I sow the seeds of my own ministry to my children, to my husband, in my writing and teaching, and in the church we planted. No matter how much experience I have standing at the plow, I’m still prone to uncertainty, discouragement, and weariness. There is nothing that helps me more than a friend coming behind me and giving me eyes to see and remember the crops God has given in the past, or a friend pointing ahead with assurance of the crops to come.

Many times, however, my uncertainty and weariness gives way to self-pity. I look around for friends, and they are not always there. Some of that is because I avoid “asking around” at all costs. I might rather drown in self-sufficiency than admit I need help at the plow or that I don’t know what to do about the weeds choking me. It’s important, I’ve discovered, to go to others with my weariness and ask for them to pray for my drooping hands and weak knees.

But Paul doesn’t say, “Look around for who is encouraging you.” His is an imperative: Let us be the ones to act. His command is a purposeful pursuit of others, an intentional plotting: “Let us consider.” In other words, he is much more concerned with whom we are encouraging than with where our own encouragement is coming from.

One thing I know: we’re all prone to second-guessing ourselves and exhaustion and thoughts of giving up. We’re all wondering if the work we do in the name of the Lord is having an impact and bringing him glory. Everyone is thirsty for encouragement. Other women around us are among those wondering and waffling and even despairing. They are feeling unsure of their calling, their giftedness, and their work. They may be growing weary at the plow. Let us consider how we might come beside them with encouragement:

  • If a seed has been sown in you by another woman, and if it’s grown up and borne something in you, tell her about it.
  • If someone willingly entered your mess and helped you till hard ground, tell her what it meant to you.
  • If you see the fruits of love or joy or peace or patience flourishing in another woman, point them out to her.
  • If you see another woman standing at the plow, doing hard labor for the Lord, exhort her to continue on and tell her why it matters.
  • If someone has taught you how to plant and to harvest the Word for yourself, express thankfulness to her.

Friendship is built upon encouragement and exhortation, because encouragement directed toward others is a fruit-bearing seed that, once sown, grows up and offers us delightful sustenance in return. “Whoever brings blessing will be enriched, and one who waters will himself be watered” (Proverbs 11:25). Although encouraging other women is not a guarantee of friendship, it is an invitation for friendship and a certain assurance of joy. When we encourage others, we water and are watered in the process.

Living Faithfully Instead of Fancifully in an HGTV World

Someone asked, "Why do you mostly post photos of your house on Instagram?" I'm sure they meant it as a slight, a subtle jab that there's nothing more important to me than the corners of my home. As opposed to, say, selfies in cars and in elevators and chumming with celebrities and new shoes and what we ate for breakfast and whatever hot, exotic place we happen to be now. I'm not opposed to any of those things—the pursuit of joy is good but can come dangerously close to hedonism and not the Christian kind. But that's not why I post photos of my home. 

It's easy to get suckered into HGTV and Pinterest and DIY blogs these days and the temptation is everywhere. And there's something appealing about it all, working hard, changing something from old to new, or old to refinished. I think we humans were made to remake and it's all we've been doing since nearly the beginning of time. I believe in being makers, but it's a perilous close line between being a maker and being a copier, or worse, only ever a daydreamer. I'm not against dreaming, but at some point we have to put our hand to the plow, regardless of how little we have to work with or how little experience we've garnered for ourselves, and we have to make with what we have. 

We don't have to be materialists, or its just as sneaky sister, minimalists. We don't have to have the perfect subway tile or shiplap or whatever design feature is today's thing. We don't need to redecorate with the seasons and fashions. But if we're Christians, we are intended for good work (Eph. 2:10), we are intended for faithfulness (Gal. 5:22), for quiet lives (I Tim. 2:2) and working with our hands (I Thes. 4:11), and we are intended to flourish as we tend and work and keep what God has planted us in (Gen. 2:15). 

Nate counted on his fingers last night. We have lived in five houses since we got married less than two years ago, a grand average of five months in each. Before that, for all my adult years of singleness, I lived in 22 different homes. Some as long as two years, some as short as eight weeks. But I've tried, with all my human skill, to be a homemaker right where God had me with what he gave me in that time. Sometimes it's been plenty. Sometimes it's been lack. Our call is to faithfulness, not fanciness. I have loved all my homes in their own way and that's part of what Instagram is for me, a tool to love what's in front of me and to hopefully teach others to love what's in front of them too. To see the corners. To watch the way the light hits a wall or a floor or a plant. To revel in the beauty of an earthly home knowing it will never completely satisfy because there's a heavenly one ahead, but that it will still satisfy the call on my life to be faithful with little. 

I don't know what that place is for you. Maybe it's not your home, maybe it's your workplace, maybe your co-workers, maybe your children, or maybe their childish mess, maybe your garden, maybe your closet, maybe, even, your breakfast. I say go ahead and delight in it. Prepare the feast of your delight as if the King of glory was coming to share it with you. And then share it with others. They can read or watch or look or judge or not, it's up to them. Just be faithful with your today.

It’s also like a man going off on an extended trip. He called his servants together and delegated responsibilities. To one he gave five thousand dollars, to another two thousand, to a third one thousand, depending on their abilities. Then he left. Right off, the first servant went to work and doubled his master’s investment. The second did the same. But the man with the single thousand dug a hole and carefully buried his master’s money. After a long absence, the master of those three servants came back and settled up with them. The one given five thousand dollars showed him how he had doubled his investment. His master commended him: ‘Good work! You did your job well. From now on be my partner.’ The servant with the two thousand showed how he also had doubled his master’s investment. His master commended him: ‘Good work! You did your job well. From now on be my partner.’ The servant given one thousand said, ‘Master, I know you have high standards and hate careless ways, that you demand the best and make no allowances for error. I was afraid I might disappoint you, so I found a good hiding place and secured your money. Here it is, safe and sound down to the last cent.’ The master was furious. ‘That’s a terrible way to live! It’s criminal to live cautiously like that! If you knew I was after the best, why did you do less than the least? The least you could have done would have been to invest the sum with the bankers, where at least I would have gotten a little interest. Take the thousand and give it to the one who risked the most. And get rid of this “play-it-safe” who won’t go out on a limb. Throw him out into utter darkness.’

Matthew 25:14-30 MSG

The Unoffendable Heart

One of the unforeseen blessings of spending a year in near isolation was the ability to grow more proficient at naval gazing than I've ever been before. It was glorious if you like that sort of thing. There were few people to discourage, dissuade, distract me, nothing to hold me back, and with those circumstances you'd think I'd excel in every area of my personality and proclivities. But you'd be wrong. 

This morning I pulled a load of laundry out of the dryer and turned on a sermon a few friends have recommended to me over the past few months. It wasn't a sermon I felt a particular need for (after all, I've spend a year being unoffended by everyone except myself), but when more than four people you trust say, "Listen to this sermon," you obey. And so I listened as I folded laundry. 

There is no great exegesis in this hour long talk, no wow moments of Scripture's depths, and at times it sounded more like a youth pastor exhorting a youth group than a treatise on offense and forgiveness, but, friends, it is good. 

In my year of aloneness and in the absence of people and opportunities and ministry, ministry, ministry, God unearthed some things in me I'm still reckoning with. Bitterness I never knew I carried, fears uncovered, shame and offense, all of these ugly sins I'd smashed far enough down for long enough that they seemed nonexistent, but when it's just you and mirror for long enough, you can't help but see them. God has been faithfully tending to each of those areas, slower than I'd like, but with care and discipline. 

It is so easy to take up an offense about nearly anything. Feeling misunderstood, feeling a lack of empathy, missing out on something, being overlooked, not being considered as worthwhile or the best for an opportunity. Matt Nelson, in the Unoffendable Heart, says this, "The enemy is glad to serve up offendable situations all day long." I'm offended that she didn't text me back, or that he didn't reach out when he said he would, or that she didn't try to understand my heart and barely understood my words, that he wasn't as attentive as I wish he'd been, or that she doesn't see past appearances. All day long there are missed connections, missed opportunities, times when stress gets the better of us, or we've felt far from the Lord and divided with others—and each of these moments is a sliver the enemy can slide into. 

After the sermon was over and I was putting laundry away, I began to think of all the ways my seeming offenses at others are ultimately rooted in feeling offended by God. Theologically I know God is perfect, without flaw, without menace, and always good in all He does. But literally? In my life? Sometimes he feels everything but. If he intended good, why didn't he stop this? If he understands me perfectly, then why can't he make this person live with me in an understanding way? If he is without menace, then why does he let all these fiery darts come at me a thousand times a day? 

I don't really know the answer to that, though I could venture a guess for my own life: because he longs for my heart to be humble, to truly mourn over my own sin as it affects others and grieves him, and to trust him more than I trust the opinions of others. 

Mark 12:14 says, "And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone's opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God..." I read this earlier in the week and I thought about it again today while listening to the sermon: most of my offenses are because I do care about everyone's opinions (particularly my own) and I am swayed by appearances, and I am more true to myself or my own preferences than I am to the word of God. To be easily offended, or offended at all, is to not be like Jesus.

And I want to be like Jesus. 

If you've found yourself keeping a record (no matter how small: annoyances, unforgiveness, grudges, withholding love or affection as payback), I'd recommend listening to this today. 

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God is not Ashamed of Our Search for Home

I have always known this world was not my home. None of us need nursery rhymes or hymns to tell us this. It is threaded through the the fabric of our covering since the first animal skins covered the first people: banishment.

We are uncomfortable, even, in our own skin, something more than ashamed and less than free. We've been trying to convince ourselves since then that we could stake our tent pegs somewhere, build a tower tall enough to reach heaven, land in a Promised Land. But that promised land has always been a place of feuding, the tower topples because we can't understand one another, and these tent pegs have grown worn and fragile in their transplanting. Can't you feel the pulse of this world is not my home? 

We are a week out from closing the door on this house and driving away with all our earthly belongings, again, in the back of a UHaul. I stand at the kitchen sink this morning, sipping coffee, eating peanut butter and jelly on wheat bread that isn't even toasted because the toaster is packed and the plates are about to be, and cannot relax my shoulders. I roll them. I tip my head from side to side. I lean back. I push forward. My body hurts. Every part of it hurts. I woke this morning thinking: I do not want pity from people, but I do want patience, if that isn't too much to ask. To say with the poet, "I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved..."

I know this world is not my home. I know it keenly in a way I think many others may think they know it, but they have never moved out of their home-state. Or they at least know where their home-state is. Someone asks where I'm from and I stumble over the words in an incoherent, rambling way. I do not have a home. I am not from or of anywhere and I suppose this is a good thing. I wish I had an identifiable accent or a sports team allegiance or hometown pride, but I have nothing except a dizzying whiplash and a jumble of addresses I try to make sense of. I carry a driver's license from one state, a bank account from another, soon a mortgage in another, a birthplace in another. This world is not my home. 

I stopped looking for home somewhere along the way. I thought it a possible dream, a plausible one. Now I begin to believe homes are for people who have numbed their otherworldliness with new kitchens and better cars and better bodies and bigger mortgages. I do not begrudge them this, though, not right now, when I want nothing more than stability and stillness and the same address for more than ten months. I have perhaps stopped looking for a forever home but I have not stopped wanting it. 

We have spiritualized the Israelite's journey to the Promised Land because we have the hindsight advantage of knowing it is a picture of the age to come. But for those weary travelers it was just a land, a plot, a place, a stillness and stability for a people who had been wandering a very long time. It was a home. 

It is good to think of the land which is to come, but it is also good, I think, to desire a land right here on earth. A place to put down roots, to stay, to commit to, to dig the tent peg in a little deeper. God wasn't ashamed to call the people who wanted that, searched for it, and found it, his own. God wasn't ashamed to call the people who just wanted home, his own. I cannot believe he is ashamed to call me his own either. (Hebrews 11:13-16)

Three cross-country moves in less than two years is nothing compared to forty years of wandering with no address, no home, and sometimes the feeling of no hope, and I cannot compare it as such. But it has been my wandering, my desert, my days of manna, and nights of crying out. It has been the tool God has used to say "Desiring a better place, a heavenly one," is good, but so is desiring a place, a land, a plot to tend, care for, and cultivate. It was no mistake that this was the first mandate to man.

Many struggle to unstick their feet from a place, but my struggle has always been the opposite, to stay somewhere long. As we pack that UHaul, drive for twenty hours, and sign our names on a dotted line, take possession of the land God has given to us, an earthly plot, it is my prayer that God uses the discipline of staying somewhere, of calling it home, of committing to it and its people for the long haul, as a means of grace and goodness to me, my family, and to those we love. 

"It is likely that conventional Christianity has wanted always to talk about Yahweh and neglect land. And conversely, secular humanism wants always to talk only of land and never of Yahweh. And most of us live in both worlds and settle for an uneasy schizophrenia, schizophrenia because we don't know what else to do, uneasy because we know better." Water Bruggemann, The Land

I Had Been My Whole Life a Bell

I try not to inundate you with book recommendations and only recommend what I truly love. Anything by Russ Ramsey I truly love. Russ is a guy from Nashville who never fails to produce works both visceral and theologically robust. His books Behold the Lamb of God and Behold the Lamb of Glory (for Advent and Easter respectively) are some of my favorites to have on hand during their season. He shows more than he tells so that when he does tell, you're listening. 

Russ's new book, Struck, taken from Annie Dillard's words, "I had been my whole life a bell and never knew until I was Struck," chronicles the story of Russ being near death from a heart infection. In it, he wrestles with theology, suffering, faith, and his own life in a way that never fails to strike his reader in their own heart. I'm always grateful when Russ releases a new book into the world, and this time even more so. 

Below is an excerpt from the book. I hope it encourages you in itself, and sends you over to Amazon or your local bookstore to find a copy of it. 

God Does Not Owe Me, by Russ Ramsey, from Struck

I must remember that God does not owe me a life free from suffering. To expect that he does is to grossly misread the Scriptures. Pick a saint, any saint, and you will find a trail of sorrow, hurt, sin, and catastrophe in their wake.

Behind Abraham sits Hagar a bowshot away from her son Ishmael who has been cast out of the camp. She is waiting for the boy to die.

Behind David is Uriah the Hittite lying dead on the battle field while the king’s son grows in Uriah’s wife’s womb.

Behind Peter, the sound of the cat o’ nine tails raking across the back of his best friend is interrupted by the crow of a rooster.

The Lord does not owe me a pain-free life. But he does promise to be with me in it.

Because the Lord often withholds explanation for our pain, we must not look at suffering as though it is some divine gimmick designed to teach us some important life lesson. That would make too little of the reality. God’s people do not walk through suffering toward the moral of the story. Rather, we walk toward the eternal presence of the Maker and Lover of our souls. This I must remember.

I must also proclaim that “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Suffering is not an event. It is a path. Scripture calls it a road pocked with miry clay and slippery rocks.

There are plenty of advisors out there who would counsel me to dress this up in positive thinking. But I do not think it would be honest to try to pad my experience with cleverly contrived optimism that denies what is true. My faith in Christ provides a deeper, truer way. I want to feel my sorrow. I want to walk in it. If the Lord walks there with me, what possible advantage could there be in conjuring another way?

No, I choose the road of suffering, and I pray for the courage to walk it honestly. The truth is my heart is broken. I need time to say as the psalmist said, “When I remember God, I moan; when I meditate, my spirit faints.” As part of my confession of faith, I need to say that I am not okay—not completely.

Lamentation is a part of worship. It is that part of us that cries out over the sorrow of the suffering, pain, and relational brokenness by which we have all been hurt. I lament to the Lord that over these past two years I have been the bruised reed he has promised not to break. I am the smoldering wick he has promised not to extinguish. I am the brokenhearted whose wounds need binding. God gave me this body with all of its physical limits, and then he broke me. He is at the same time my Healer and the one who has permitted my affliction.

The deeper I venture into this affliction, the more questions I have. But I remember C. S. Lewis who said, “When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of ‘no answer.’ It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though he shook his head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, ‘Peace, child; you don’t understand.’”

I have reconciled myself to the fact that there is much I do not understand. But where else can I go? He alone has the words of life. Though he slay me, yet will I trust him. But though I trust him, yet shall I lament that he has slain me.