Stop Looking Around

Stop it.

I know, right? We’ve talked about this before. But here’s the thing, I’m a starter by nature. And lately, God is forcing me to see that stopping is often as necessary as starting. Bob Goff teaches it as a discipline of quitting something every Thursday. (You can pick your own day if Thursday isn’t your thing.)

Stop. It.

So, here’s the thing I need to stop right now. I need to stop looking around at everyone else ALL THE TIME. I spend (no, I waste) so much time looking around at what everyone else has and what everyone else is doing. I’m even adept at disguising this practice as necessary work and strategy. “I wouldn’t want to re-invent the wheel.” “Readers are leaders.” “I like to stay informed.” “I want to learn from others – you know, because we’re better together.” See how good I am at justification?

Those things are true, and even good at times, but when they are excuses for looking around more than looking at God, I’m in trouble.

Too often when I’m looking around, I’m looking to see who is doing “better” than me or “more” than me. I’m also looking to see who is doing “worse” or “less.” I’m in a full-scale comparison trap, trying to decide if I’m doing okay using everyone else as a baseline. It’s exhausting – and frustrating – frustrating because we almost never get to see someone else’s true picture. Most of the time none of us are doing as well or as poorly as we portray, even in our best attempts at honesty and transparency.

So, now what?

Stop it.

My attempts at kicking unhealthy habits have a 100% failure rate, when they aren’t accompanied by the insertion of a healthy habit in their place. To stop looking at everyone else, I have to look somewhere else. Insert Jenn Johnson and Bethel Music –

“God, I look to you. I won’t be overwhelmed.”

Ha, it’s so true. My looking at everyone else was leaving me overwhelmed – constantly. So much so that I’ve grown tired of using the word overwhelmed. Looking to God refuses the notion that we can be overwhelmed. He is always enough. Looking around will always fuel our need for more. But God, God is enough – He’s even more than enough (see what I did there?).

God, I look to you.

For me, this looks like some more earnest time spent reading God’s Word than reading my newsfeed. It means listening less to what other people say about me, and asking God to show me more of who He is. It means laying in the newly hung hammock in our backyard, seeing with my eyes closed. It’s amazing how much my vision improves without my eyesight.

What about you? What is God asking you to stop these days? And what are  you putting in its place?

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The Magic of Character

Have y’all heard about Disney World?!?!

Okay, maybe I’m behind here, but I was looking back at pictures from a family trip a couple of years ago, and the place truly is magical. But perhaps the greatest magic Disney captures, is the magic, and the power, of character –

Character matters.

This isn’t new and it isn’t earth-shattering, but it is true. I realize the characters at Disney are actors, and I am mixing the definitions of character, but go with me here…

When Mary Poppins emerged from her house in England (Epcot world showcase), she immediately commented on the untidiness of our queue and settled us into place with a smile and a wave of her elegantly gloved wrist.

Gaston came out from his village tavern and told my boys how nice it was to meet…for them, of course. And after ascertaining the number of eggs they eat for breakfast, he invited them to flex alongside him.

Jake met Buzz Lightyear – “for real, Mom.” And later, when we battled the Emperor Zurge on the Buzz ride, he fought hard because he was fighting for his friend Buzz.

And, oh, we had special arrangements for my nieces to meet Anna and Elsa – wow! – the magic as they discussed Sven’s carrot breath with Anna and shared a warm hug like she learned from Olaf, and the wonder as they stood enraptured as Queen Elsa swept her cape around their feet. And for just a moment, even the 10-year old trying desperately to be “one of the adults” for the trip, believed again that dreams really can come true.

The “characters” at Disney never break character and it makes ALL the difference in the Disney experience.

There is precious little in this world that is within our control, but our character is one of them. When we hold onto it, it matters. Our character gives other people a reason to believe. When we let it go (see what I did there?), it matters. The magic is broken and the effects can be devastating, not just for ourselves, but for everyone standing by.

We live in a skeptical time when there are just as many, if not more, blogs and articles written about the hidden underground of Disney, the “behind-the-scenes” that explains away the magic, as there are about the magic itself. If we are going to maintain credibility, and more importantly, if we are going to be available for God to use so that others can know Him through our lives, we have to hold onto our character.

The easiest ways to break character – gossip, lie, cheat, pretend you never make mistakes.

The best ways to maintain character – be humble, be genuine, say you’re sorry when you do something wrong.

Character is one of the best ways to help an unbelieving world believe.

How is yours holding up?

Endurance

This year I picked a word. I’ve never picked a word before. I thought it was clever when other people picked a word, but I never felt like it would work for me. In the past I have made resolutions in my mind even while adamantly proclaiming that I don’t make resolutions – they are for people less resolved than me…

So, this year I picked a word. Endurance.

You see, I like new things. I thrive on change and I get bored easily. I start things. I’m a starter. I’m passionate and I make a good ignition switch. It’s why I planted a church. I think it may even be why my Dad nicknamed me Sparkey at birth and “Spark” is what has stuck even into my mid-thirties.

But sometimes, a spark isn’t what is needed. Sometimes you need to find the big log and keep it burning. (My husband and I built a fire pit in our backyard a few months ago so now I use fire lingo.)

Endurance.

The church I planted turns 7 years old this month. My husband and I will be married 12 years in May. I’m 8 years deep in the adventure called parenting. And a lot of days, I’m tired. Actually, I lied, I’m tired all of the days. I could have picked “Rest” as my word, and there certainly needs to be more of that, but as 2016 turned into 2017, I found myself standing in the kitchen with My husband and friends deep in conversation about life and faith and family, so much so that we missed midnight. And in the quiet first hours of the new year, I felt God push fresh air into my lungs and my spirit and the words I heard were “Keep going, there’s good stuff coming.”

So many times it’s right when we’re close to giving up that the breakthrough is right around the corner. Our enemy is whispering in our ear that we should quit, but if we choose instead to keep going…endurance.

I picked a word this year. And the word came with a verse. Paul told the early church right at the point they were starting to wonder, at a moment when I imagine they were tired and considering the merits of giving up, “The one who calls you is faithful, and He will do it.” (1 Thessalonians 5:24)

Maybe you need to pick a word this year too. Maybe your word is endurance too – I’m happy to share. Either way, I’d love to hear what God is speaking to you in this new year. Let’s keep going together.

I Run (also some thoughts on faith)

I run. I’m a runner. Me and Forrest Gump, it’s what we do.

I run to relieve stress. I run to be healthy. I run because I like to eat. I run to have time alone. I run to have time with my friends. I run because I enjoy pushing myself. I run because I’m competitive. I run for the adrenaline rush when I’m done running. I run because I can. I run because I’m still that girl who will always want to lose “just five pounds.” Sometimes I run for the cute t-shirt.

If you’re a runner, most of that probably makes sense to you. If you’re not, well, you probably already stopped reading because that was a long paragraph on running.

Here’s the point – I didn’t realize I was a runner one day and then start to run. I started to run for a lot of different reasons, some good, some not, some I didn’t even understand. And somewhere along the way, I became a runner.

Faith works the same way. You just start – and by start, I mean ask questions, try it out, make friends with other people who have it, read your Bible, etc. The people who live by faith don’t do it because they woke up one morning with faith and decided to use it. They started in small ways and over time, realized their faith had grown. It’s even easier than a “couch to 5k” because you can start on the couch with a Bible app.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked the question, “How do you get faith?” or the number of times I’ve been told, “I’m just not there yet.” Just like running, if you want to be a runner, you have to run. And if you wait to run until you feel like you can be good at it, you’ll never start. If you wait until your life makes sense, it just never will.

Preacher and theologian John Wesley at one point thought he should give up preaching because he just didn’t feel like he was up to the task. He was discouraged and frustrated. (Ever been there? I have.) But a mentor/friend named Peter Boehler told him, “Preach faith until you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”

And so, my encouragement for you today is to just start from wherever you are and take one step forward toward where you want to be. You will likely be surprised where you end up a few months down the road. You could be a runner too!

(Oh, and just a little trick of the trade…as a runner, I’ve discovered I’m always faster and I always go farther with a partner – you know, Better Together!)

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” ~Hebrews 12:1-2

 

Be with my words

My husband and I, both being of the somewhat chatty variety, managed to give birth to two very verbal kids. Go figure. Most of the time, this makes for great entertainment. Clark and I muffle our laughter during prayer time as our kids pray for everything under the sun and we watch the surprised faces of friends and family when our kids says they’re “so exasperated” after losing a game of Go Fish. (This is preferable to the time our 4-year old was playing Uno with his grandmother and said “dammit” when she played a Draw 4 card. #winning)

You see, the other side of the loquacious coin is when our kids wield their words as a weapon. On more than one occasion, I have felt verbally eviscerated by my 7-year old only to have the reality check that he learned it somewhere…probably somewhere as close as home…well, let’s be real, from me.

And so, one of the most frequent conversations in our home is that we can use our words in two ways, to build people up or tear people down, and we are going to actively work to use our words to build people up. Most days it works out about like this:

Build up. Tear down. Apologize. Repeat.

Since we are so clearly a work in progress, I am going to share a piece of wisdom that is not my own, but is helping me overcome the cycle day by day. It’s a prayer that a dear friend shared with me years ago and now it’s often on auto-repeat in my head. It goes like this,

“Be with my thoughts. Be with my words.”

That’s it. Two sentences. One of the simplest prayers you might ever pray, but when you trust God to answer, it may also be the prayer that changes the atmosphere around you – in your marriage, your home, your job, your church, wherever you go.

Use your words well today. At least try. I will too. It’s likely, actually certain, that someone you know could benefit greatly from being built up.

 

Do the Math

Psalm 33:5 -The Lord loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love.

A wise leader recently told me to always do the math. He was talking specifically about leading through change, but I think it’s a nugget that holds wide application.

When events like the horror that happened in Orlando on Sunday occur, we feel fear and insecurity and it seems as though we are surrounded by hate. But it helps to do the math. While the act of one person filled with hate caused the deaths of 50 people (and to be clear, that is 50 people too many), the number of people who daily choose love over hate is exponentially higher. The number of people seeking peace is vastly higher than those provoking bitterness and dissension.

Lots of people are writing and sharing their thoughts in the aftermath of Orlando, and many of them more eloquently and with greater depth than I am able to in the moment. But for what it’s worth, as I cry, as I get angry, as I process, as I sit with family, friends and people in our church and community, I’m doing the math. And while evil most definitely exists, and hatred is real, the earth is FULL of the unfailing love of God being lived out everyday in the lives of so, so many.

I condemn hate, oppression and injustice in all forms that it presents itself. And my prayer this morning is that I would praise 3x more than I criticize, that I would practice patience far more than I dwell in frustration, and that I would sing loudly about the goodness and love of God so that the voices of hate that are so much fewer, don’t get to be louder.

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