Proper Pronouns

Yesterday my 7-yr old son ran into a door handle as he rushed ahead in a race to beat his brother to the car. He grimaced on impact and then immediately turned to glare at me. His look said it all – the accident was clearly my fault. Somehow, with my magical mom powers, I had moved the door from 10 feet away at the same time that I forced him to run instead of walk and therefore caused him great (i.e. over in seconds) pain.

You got me, kid. It’s my bad, clearly.

If only this misplaced blame phenomena ended as we grew older…Unfortunately, we’re all quick to point fingers at something, anything, other than ourselves.

As with other things, we’ve become particularly adept at this in the church world. As the world around us grows more and more critical, we’ve decided to join the party, only we want to do so as outsiders looking in.

“The Church hasn’t done a good job caring for people.”

“The Church spends too much money on ______.”

“The Church doesn’t spend enough money on _______.”

“The Church isn’t relevant to young people.”

“The Church should stop trying to be relevant.”

“The Church is so hypocritical/judgmental/soft/political/etc.”

These are just a few examples. And, believe me, criticism is not a bad thing and often warranted, but unfortunately most of these statements, and many more like them, are being made by Christians and rarely are they followed by the pronouns “we” or “I.” We all like to play the role of Monday morning quarterback from time to time. I am so guilty of this so very often. The problem is, it is hurting our witness to the world and the Church isn’t getting better or stronger as a result.

Change starts from within. And while the Church is made up of many, many, many parts, together we make up the whole and together we have to take responsibility for the task Jesus entrusted to us. It’s like the song I learned in Sunday School as a child,

“I am the church. You are the church. We are the Church together. All who follow Jesus, all around the world, yes, we’re the Church together.”

Jesus hasn’t given up on the Church. He hasn’t given up on the idea of you and me working together to share love and grace and truth to a world that is deeply broken. We shouldn’t give up on it either. But we need to stop clawing and tearing at each other and abdicating our part. We can criticize each other while loving each other and remembering that we’re all part of the family.

Together isn’t always easier, but it is better – and it’s also how Jesus told us to function. I love the Church, with all of OUR humanness and flaws. That God would call me to lead in the Church is a privilege that comes with a higher level of accountability. So, I’ll go first:

We have work to do. We get it wrong, a lot. But we can do better – together.

 

A Culture of Extremes

We live in a culture that promotes and rewards extremism.

I mean think about it, you either have to love Peeps (the candy) or hate them. There’s no in between. (I for one am still busy mourning the discontinuation of the Peepsters – dark chocolate goodness surrounding a marshmallow creme center reminiscent of love and happiness and everything God intended in the garden…).

Of course, nowhere is this currently playing out in a more obvious way than the 2016 Presidential election cycle. As of this week, we are left with the far right, the far left, and Donald Trump, who let’s face it, is just extreme. Gov. Kasich is the notable exception but he is a non-factor at this point in the race.

We have managed to create a system where only the extreme views have opportunity to succeed on a national level. I’m too far removed from my political science degree to make a sound argument for how we got there in the democratic process – I will leave that analysis to the likes of David Brooks – but I will say that the result is a cycle of amassing more and more debt as we swing back and forth from one side of the pendulum to the other with nothing actually being accomplished. We elect a Democrat to the White House, and the next congressional election shifts back to the Republicans, and everyone points to the opposite side for why we can’t get things done. We elect a Republican to the White House and, well, you know where this is going.

What I find most frustrating in this current state of reality is that the vast majority of our population does not fall into an extreme category. I actually believe most of us agree on most things, but it’s more fun and more entertaining to talk about the disagreements, i.e. who can say the craziest thing on social media today and thereby “go viral”? We feed on our discontent rather than working out of our strengths and opportunities for agreement. And in doing so, we create labels and caricatures for the opposing viewpoints that hold very little resemblance to most actual people we meet.

For example, I believe the vast majority of people want to see fewer mass shootings (and by fewer, we mean none). That’s what most of us want. We want to feel like our kids are safe at school and we can walk into a movie theater and trust that all of the nuttiness is happening on screen and not around us. But instead of having a real conversation about how we work to get there, we give the proverbial microphone to the extremes who make us believe we have to either love guns or hate guns, and furthermore to love guns equates to loving violence, and to hate guns equates to enabling violence. What?! Maybe it has very little to do with the guns at all, but we’ll never find out if the conversation stops there.

What would happen if we all took a few steps back from the crazy juice?

Let’s be clear – I’m not making an argument for mediocrity or the absence of universal truth. I’m not even making an argument against the health and advantages of civil disagreement. But there’s the key word – civil disagreement – which ought to be followed by active engagement. Tension is at the core of every great advancement humanity has made.

This is a big conversation and I’m probably wading into a really big pool that I’m not prepared to swim in, but let me make it personal. I believe passionately that everyone needs Jesus and I will unapologetically spend my life sharing Him with everyone I can. Some would say that is extreme, and maybe it is. But I believe I can still sit down at a dinner table with my atheist neighbor and share about my faith, listen to theirs and openly own our hopes and desires for the others conversion without feeling like we have to hate each other, disrespect each other or not allow our kids to bike to the playground together. I want excellent public schools that meet the needs of ALL of our kids, but I don’t think our federal government is intended or well-equipped to take on the role of creating those schools. This puts me in tension with some of my friends who want to see more federal dollars being spent and more standards established and regulated on a national level, but it doesn’t take away the fact that all of us want our kids and other kids to learn and grow and have the best opportunities to succeed.

I can’t fix Washington, DC. Sorry, not my calling. I gave up my political aspirations long ago when I realized God was calling me to use my gifts and leverage my influence in the Church. But I know I can do my part in my little corner of the world to not play into the extremes. I can refuse to let generalizations and hyped-up categories define how I see and love my neighbors. I can trust people enough to share some of my thoughts and opinions and listen to theirs without taking license to decide who they are about everything based on one thing.

It’s not just rhetoric, I actually believe we’re better together. But in our current culture of extremes, I think we may all need some practice to get better at being better together.

Who’s up for trying?

 

My Grown-Up Christmas List

On Sunday, I talked about making a grown-up Christmas list (you can check that our here), but now, without further adieu and with all necessary thanks to Amy Grant for the inspiration, here we go…

Jenn’s Grown-Up Christmas List

  • Stress-relief lotion – because kids and ministry and politics and adulting…FOR THE LOVE! (Please, Clark, and thanks in advance 🙂
  • Land to build an amazing facility/tool for the ongoing ministry of Ashley Ridge Church – because I believe Jesus created, commissioned and still intends for the local church to lead the way and point people toward life in Him. (Help a sister out – you can give online right now)
  • Jesus – I want more of Jesus in more of my life. I want my shortfall filled with His sufficiency. I want more of Jesus for our community. I want people to know there is hope and there is a better way. I want people to experience peace like they never have before. I want more of  Jesus for our whole world. I believe He is the answer to all of the darkness, the terror, and the hatred in our world. I pick Jesus. He is what I want for me, for my kids, for our community, for our nation and for our world.

That’s it. That’s all I want for Christmas. Oh yea, and my 6-yr old’s two front teeth (they’ve been missing for the last three months and the kid looks fabulously goofy, but it’s just time).

How about you? What do you want for Christmas? And perhaps more importantly, what will you give this year for Christmas? I know everything on my list starts with me and what I am willing to give. Our prayers, our wishes and our wants have to push us toward action. So here we go, together, waiting in expectation and pushing toward the greatest Christmas yet!

Peace in these times, my friends!

“I Was You” – Guest Post

My amazing friend, John Johnson, wrote this and shared it with me today. And with his permission, I’m sharing it with all of you. Thank you, John! I’m so grateful to follow Jesus with you.

 

“I was you”

I was you

You wouldn’t know it now

My brand has changed

What you see now is “The Church guy”

The “Christian guy”

It is hilarious to me, that when I meet you…

You think I am “one of them”

I used to sit in the back

Hoping no one would notice

Hoping no one would talk to me

It was safe back there

Before I ever prayed in a circle

I prayed my wife wouldn’t make me go

Make me go to church

Make me sit through “their stuff”

I was the “Agnostic guy”

I shined my adamantium, agnostic, armor with pride

I looked down upon people I now love so deeply

Felt sorry for their need for “magic solutions”

My old brand was just fine

Only it wasn’t fine at all

I was carrying way too much of “my stuff”

Like a poison that “stuff” leaked out

It was slowly killing me

It was hurting those around me

I thought I could do it all

I thought I needed no God

Slowly, they started to chip away at the armor

Nothing spectacular

They showed me their brand

Like a relentless jingle

Their openness, love and gentle prodding

Got stuck in my head

And before I knew it I wanted “it”

At first, I turned down many invitations

I fake smiled and shook hands with many folks

Mysteriously, at some point, I started to say yes

I said yes I will go try this, I will go do that

Yes, I will go learn something there

As I started to say yes, the brand only shined clearer

I started to see glimpses of a different way to be

Glimpses of a different me

All my stuff came crashing in on the old me

I asked that He take my stuff

I was so tired of carrying it

So tired of hurting and hurting others

I wanted to Love, unconditionally

The way I was loved

The way their brand taught me to love

The brand they were showing me was Jesus

It is now my brand and people see it

I still feel like an imposter some days

Some days maybe I am?

Most days, I am just grateful

Grateful that the jingle got stuck in my head

And Jesus changed my heart

Growing Into Your Skin

At some point, you have to stop apologizing for being who you are and wanting what you want.

(Are there legal, moral and ethical boundaries to that statement? Absolutely, but that’s not where I’m going with this.)

I don’t think there’s a magic formula for when that point comes, but there is a point. Especially if you’re following Jesus. Our faith tells us the more we follow Him and do what He tells us to do and love the way He asks us to love, the more we are being transformed and renewed – heart, soul, mind and strength. Which suggests to me that along that journey, the things we should start to want are the things God designed us to want, useful things that God can and will use to build His Church.

Jen Hatmaker is funny (okay, she’s not funny…she’s hilarious!) – so she uses it. (reference her newest book, “For the Love” – the whole thing.) Jeremy Cowart is an artist (except, let’s just say it – he’s cool, as in the for real, if there was an actual cool kids table, he would be the ringleader because he just is. He pulls off the hipster hat without looking ironic. He does art things that are, for lack of synonyms, cool. But now I’m gushing…) – so he does that. Andy Stanley makes things so easy and so obvious and so clear – so he does that again and again and again in ways that make us go, “Oh yea, we probably knew that. Now we’ll remember and go do that.” (Is this not the Andy Stanley effect?)

For me, it’s like this: I want to speak. I want to write. I want to pastor a large, growing church. It’s not because I think those things are the only way to lead people to Jesus. But they are avenues, and I believe they are the avenues God built me and gifted me to use. (You may be doubting the writing part because I abuse the ellipses, the dash and the parentheses like it’s my job, but…well – just go with it because I’d like it to be my job.)

I used to apologize for wanting those things because it sounded cliche and ambitious – and definitely, definitely not “holy.” Except holiness has a lot to do with getting in the lanes God invites us unto to do the work He set out for us to do, i.e. being set apart. So, I can fight it, or I can lean into it.

I’m leaning in. Not necessarily in the way Sheryl Sandberg described it, but then again, maybe so.

It only took 34 years, but I’ve finally grown into my skin. And the good thing about skin is that the dead parts are constantly falling off and giving way to new parts, but the shape stays the same. Skin can both stretch and retract. In other words, it’s capable of handling our lives. And so, I’ve decided to live in mine. And yes, that means it will need to continue to get tougher. But hopefully that toughness will be what protects the soft and tender insides. Growing into my skin means unapologetically going the places God asks me to go – not in the hopes of achieving fame, but of playing my part to make Jesus known.

Are you living in your skin, or trying to cover it up? What lane has God opened in front of you that you may be hesitating to use?What do you want? Is it possible that what you want is something God can use?

On having people

We all need people. Some of us have people by birth that stay our people throughout life. Some of us seek out and/or stumble upon our people at different points in life. Some of us have a dynamic combination of people from multiple sources. Wherever the people come from, we all need people. Especially if we desire to do what God told us to do, which is to love all of the people. Loving all of the people requires having our people to keep us going. Know what I mean?

Our people are the ones who show up for us consistently. They pray for us, encourage us, and challenge us. They aren’t scared away by our messes. In the best circumstances, they are actually willing to jump in and get messy too. Our people know us (I mean, really know us), and we know them, and somehow that’s okay.

I have people. I have AMAZING people. I have parent people and little people, and an incredible husband people. I have sister people, small group people, team people, and running people. I work with phenomenal people who I also get to call friend people. I know these are all my people in part because they all know my primary love language is dark chocolate (and coffee…and red wine…I digress).

There are still a lot of things I want in life. Things I want to do. Things I want to accomplish and see. But the older, and hopefully wiser, I get, the more I realize that the greatest things in my life will always be the people. Jesus said, “Love God. Love people.” The relationships I build, the ones I nurture and the people who only by the grace of God stand by me through all of life’s storms, will be the trophies I carry.

Who are your people? Whose people are you?

We’re all Better Together!

It’s funny really…

(I have a secret, but you have to promise not to tell anyone…are you close enough for me to whisper?)

I lead a church whose vision and primary call to mission is that “Life is Better Together,” but most of the time, I just really like to be alone.

Oops.

I love people (but people can be hard to love). I’m energized by people (except for all of the times they totally wear me out – for instance, the little people that live in my house ALL THE DAYS). I think better out loud with other people there to respond in the moment (and, surprisingly, I still keep most of my thoughts to myself).

For some of you, this may be shocking. Those of you who know me are still getting over the fact that I’m keeping most of my thoughts to myself despite all evidence to the contrary. But, really, I think it’s just funny – and so the kind of thing I believe God loves to do.

God has a history of taking the biggest skeptics and making them champions of their own skepticism – take Paul, for instance, or one of my favorites, Nicodemus. That God would take someone comfortable, and even proud, in her independence and make her the mouthpiece for co-dependence is guffaw-worthy at times.

So, why am I telling you my secret? Because I’m going to keep championing better togetherness the rest of my days since I am absolutely convinced it is life at God’s best for us. But, I want everyone listening in, whether it’s for a moment, a season, or over the long-haul, to know that it’s hard for me too. And even though I’m convinced we need God, we need each other and the world needs us, my temptation will always be to hide, to not get too personal, or too vulnerable. But if I keep showing up, and you keep showing up, then even on the days it’s by accident, we’ll find ourselves together – and life really is better that way!

Ashes, Ashes, we all fall down…

I never understood the game “Ring around the rosey.” First of all, what is a “rosey?” I get that a “posey” is a flower, or at least I think, but I could be wrong about that. In this game, you hold hands and skip in a circle until it’s time to all fall down. And then, for seemingly no reason at all, you stand back up and do it all over again. The 8-year old boy that lives inside of me (and don’t read too deeply into that – we all have a nose-pickin’ mud-pie lovin’ adventurer somewhere inside, 8-yr old boys are just least ashamed and more likely to exhibit those tendencies – now back to what I was saying…) the 8-yr old boy gets the fun of seeing how fast you can make the circle go and how violently you can yank each other to the ground. I don’t know exactly what my issue is with the game, but I think I have trouble with any game that doesn’t have a clear definition of winning and losing, and thereby a strategy for winning. Competitive much?

So, why so much thought about a childhood game? It’s actually what came to mind yesterday as I watched the frenzy surrounding the falling financial market. In a society where we often hear about the widening gap between the haves and have-nots, it occurs to me that the stock market, when rising, fits that description, but, when falling, feels like one of the few places where we’re all in it together. There is a trickle down effect whether you have lots of money invested in mutual funds or none at all. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down. (My financial advisor husband would want me to point out that we should not, however, panic about the current market scenario :))

I am not an economist. In fact, I managed to walk away from a 4-year liberal arts degree and 3 years of post-graduate work without ever setting foot in a business school or taking an economics class. (I regret this, by the way.) But for what it’s worth, I think there are moments where we have a choice to panic, or embrace the reminder that we’re all in this big LIFE thing together. We need each other. And I know that can be scary. We’d prefer to think that our economy could thrive no matter what happens with the Chinese economy, but it just isn’t true. We like to believe we will always have it in us to get back up off of the ground, but even at the age of 34, I’m realizing it will take a few more hands to pull up off the ground and into a standing position.

Maybe a clear win isn’t just a set of numbers on a score board. Maybe the big win really is when we all stand back up TOGETHER.

How are you defining winning in your life right now? How are you helping someone else stand up again?

Better Together!

The Main Thing

To keep the main thing the main thing, everything else must change.

Loving my kids looks different at every stage. Rumor has it they won’t crawl in my lap to read books when they’re teenagers (rumors are often false, right? please?), but their need to be close to me will still exist. How will I wrap my arms around them when they’re walking out the door with my car keys? I don’t know yet, but I’ll keep changing my methods until I figure it out. The main thing is loving them without condition. Everything else must change.

Reading books isn’t just something I do with my kids. Reading gives me a lens into a world much bigger than I will ever experience in person. I love to read! However, my husband refuses to add more and more boxes of heavy books to our limited storage space, books waiting to be moved with us when the time comes to change homes (because change is inevitable). And so, I have learned to read via my iPad, which means moving past my preference for the feel and weight of an epic novel, the texture of the pages, the smell of the dust from the bookshelf where the book was living between reads, and the literal experience of a book good enough to be dubbed a “page-turner.” I still buy some books in hardcover…change is hard.

To keep the main thing the main thing, everything else must change.

Nowhere is this perhaps truer today than in the Church. As Carey Nieuwhof puts it, we have to love the mission more than the model. The mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ has never changed, but to keep that mission at the forefront, everything else about how we live out our mission as the Church must change. And that’s hard.

On Sunday, I will head to the South Carolina Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church along with hundreds of other pastors and church members from across the state. In the weeks and months to come, thousands of others in our denomination will do the same, each to their own Annual Conference. I wonder how much will look the same as it has for years. I wonder how much will change. I wonder if we’re ready to engage the big questions like which pieces of our model are we hanging onto more desperately than our desire to see people changed by the Lordship of Jesus Christ in their lives. Or, what about the really big questions, like whether denominations have had their day in church history. What if denominations served a great purpose for bringing Christians together for larger mission in the world, but now their systems, bureaucracies and processes have grown burdensome and distracting from that very intent? Are we willing to scrap the model for the mission? Or are we willing to let the mission suffer for the sake of maintaining the model?

I’m a church planter. Or, I was a church planter. I’m not sure how long you can hang onto that title. The church I helped plant is now 5 1/2 years old. When we started, everything looked different, so it was easy to look down from our trendy, hipster-laden, direct trade coffee-drinking perch at those other places still drinking Folgers from styrofoam and think we obviously had the market cornered on keeping the main thing the main thing. We loved Jesus, and our skinny jeans were the proof. But five years in, there are already things we love about how we “do church,” and I wonder if we are being careful enough to continue loving Christ more than our model. What happens when our relevance becomes irrelevant? Will we cling to our sacred cows, or commit to a way of doing church that is designed for constant change?

To keep the main thing the main thing, everything else must change. I want to be part of doing the hard work, knowing that the hard work never ends. The hard work isn’t a phase, it’s the path of faithfulness, and Jesus warned that few would follow that narrow road. I don’t have all of the answers, but I want to commit to walking that narrow road together – it’s better that way!

A Prayer to Start Lent

ash cross

It’s easy to see all the ways others should repent. As ISIS beheads and Fifty Shades rakes in millions, it’s tempting to feel at best defeated, and at worst, morally superior. But God, as we begin a season of reflecting, remembering and begging for your mercy, as we walk with Jesus toward the cross, will you please show us the ways our sins nailed you to that place? Will you please show me my sins?

Jesus, please open my eyes to the areas I choose blindness so I can avoid action. Make me aware of the emptiness of all of my excuses. And even in that place of repentance, please give me a new understanding of what it means that you went first. You took on sin, pain, suffering and death so that I could have hope – even in my insistence on doing things my way.

Jesus, help me make much of you in the coming days and so much less of myself. Please give me the strength to take up my cross and follow you.