The Exvangelical Movement and Why I Will Always Love the Church

I didn’t even know about the exvangelical movement until about a week ago, when I read about this former pastor’s leaving of the faith. I have now read enough to have some context for the term exvangelical. I have enough compassion to want to hear every story of every person who has entered into it. And I have enough history with evangelicalism to leave it for good.

When I was a little girl of ten, someone I loved and respected very much, told me I should think about whether or not I ought to be praying out loud during our weekly prayer meetings, since I was a girl. It hurt so badly and felt so confusing. But my Dad, a prayer warrior who loved his little girl, told me to not listen to this–I needed to pray. And I needed to love the Church.

And I have. Even when I sought a job as a youth director at the church where I was a youth intern and was told I couldn’t fill the position because I was a woman. I kept praying and kept loving the Church.

When, in genuine love and concern, many of my conservative friends and family thought it was wrong for me to pursue a Master of Divinity as a woman, I understood where they were coming from, forgave and kept loving the Church.

In recent years, I have experienced marginalization, even mistreatment, and much misunderstanding as someone who is diagnosed with the mental illness, bipolar disorder.

Why? For all that is good and right, would I keep loving the Church?

Because it is the Church with a capital ‘C’. It’s the distinction I make, from church with a lowercase ‘c’. The church is the one which has acted so imperfectly it’s hard to find Jesus in it. But the Church is the one I will always love. She calls forth the undying love of the Great Bridegroom as He names her Bride. This Church is the One Jesus laid down His life for, and the One He promises to claim for His very own at the end of all things.

This Church cannot ever be confused with the all-too-often societal, political and misguided world of evangelicalism. Yet much that is beautiful and true of the coming Bride is found within the faithful hearts of evangelicals, and the lovers of Jesus worldwide.

I truly find it sad many exvangelicals have fully detached themselves not only from evangelicalism but the faith itself. It is my weeping heart desire that, till all is said and done, many final chapters of Homecoming to the arms of Jesus will be written.

Knowing that many are leaving evangelicalism marked by deep pain, how can I keep loving the Church? Because She is God’s covenant people. You see, evangelicalism is not the Church and the Church is not evangelicalism. Like Israel of old, evangelicalism is a whore who runs after false gods. Power. Materialism. Superiority. But there is a blueprint even for this. The Bridegroom betroths her to Himself forever, naming her His Bride, the one He owns and will perfect even at the height of her chasing after the idols, the Baals.

As a part of the Church, I am also a spiritual whore. I have loved many other things, often above God. I have craved power, prestige, position. I have wanted to be served rather than to serve. I have denied the heart of my Savior, my Bridegroom, who freely gave His own spotless life for His Bride. Yet, He promises to forever bring me Home and all who are His own, the Church.

This is where I find those who leave the Church, and too the faith, lose their way. It is a meta-narrative, a grand story, of which we are all a part. History repeats itself and we are either the true worshiper or the idolater. We can become the very thing we promised to never be if we forget where we’ve been and where we’re going.

We’ve all been there. I cannot imagine even one person who has grown up in a church not being wounded deeply by it. I can’t imagine someone who hasn’t been pierced by a loved one who believed differently and held up the Bible, full or righteousness, to prove it. And not for one teeny, tiny moment do I want to imply that there is someone who hasn’t been truly beaten up where they should have been loved, cared for and protected.

Yet, the Church.

I don’t know what has come first for exvangelicals. Is it the wounding, trauma and subsequent disillusionment, or a rejection of the person and truth of Jesus? I want to know, so if you are reading this, please tell me.

It’s so hard for me to believe that the rejection of Jesus comes first. I think the tainting of the church that is full of evangelicalism precedes all other things. Then, there is simply sifting fingers through a lot of sandy ‘truths’, ‘values’, ‘positions’ and yes, people, and wondering what possibly can be kept?

I don’t have a lot of answers, but I do have one. Jesus is Faithful and True. He is the rider on the white horse coming for His very own Church, His Bride, soon. He promises this on the basis of his life, death and resurrection–completing the fullness of redemption for this whole fallen world. I can no sooner reject this than reject everything he says and everything the Bible says about Him.

I proudly stake my all on this truth–He is coming for his very own and so very soon. It is the worst time in history to give up on His Church, when all is coming together–the fulfillment of all things.

So take my hand. Let’s join together and love His Church. Let’s recognize we are His Bride and be the ones awake, the ones making ourselves ready. Let’s stay strong amid all of the complexities, the issues, the evangelical imperfect construct, and never, ever stop loving.

 

An Open Letter to My Younger Missionary Mom Self

Dear One,

I want to reach my arms across time and gently caress your shoulders. I’ll lift your head to look in my eyes and say, ‘these shoulders were not meant to carry the weight of the world.’ The hands of the God who treasures you were. You feel responsible for everything and everyone. You feel the pressure to feed and clothe and keep smiles on all your people. And yes, it seems it’s up to you to keep them all alive. You want to be the perfect wife—supporting your husband in every way, while somehow finding time to enter the ministry. At any moment, if you let go of all you do as the barometer, the anchor, of the home, you are sure it will fall apart. But, dear one, the aching heart of God is longing for you to let go, because He has something beautiful for you. He has JOY for you. Yet you cannot receive that joy when you are carrying so much else. So, come weary one and take the easy yoke and light burden Jesus is offering with those wide-open arms.

It’s hard to believe, but nothing you do is insignificant. In those months right after you arrive, when you are trying to acclimate, learn the language, become re-acquainted with public transportation, settle in AND you are pregnant, you are incredibly significant. And a few months later, when the baby comes, and you can’t do much of anything but take care of this little life, you are so significant. You don’t need to be worrying about learning the language, driving, discipling, or cooking. You just need to be with your baby and your other children, and yes, your hubby too. Let your family cocoon for a while. I promise you will gain the strength needed to tackle anything that comes—one thing at a time. Your every breath is truly significant. So take some deep ones and enjoy the simple things.

I know. You are a missionary in another culture, so you want to immerse fully. This is important. But it’s okay to lean on the Ex-pat community. Dig deep into life-giving relationships there. Pray and ask the Lord for just what you need as you acclimate to life. He will show you. Trust yourself. If it’s in you to learn the language, you will. Don’t worry that relationships with English speakers will keep you from this. They are likely on the same journey, and you can encourage one another. Just be free to find the relationships you need. You are building for a lifetime, not a year or two where you try to cram in all your learning. So, give yourself tons of grace as you take it all one step at a time.

Gather morsels of wisdom wherever you can. Learn from everyone about everything in life. Interview them. Keep a journal of notes so you don’t forget. Sometimes people don’t remember what it’s like to be new. Don’t let this discourage you. Seek out a mentor and, when you find one, don’t let her go. If at first you struggle to find someone, know that many have been there. Pray and don’t lose heart. She will be found and has much to teach you. She’s got big things for you, like when she wanted to quit and how she worked through this. And she knows little things too–like how when you travel you can never have enough of those flimsy grocery store bags which you never want unless you are on the road. Your life is about the big and the little things. And God has made you to learn from others.

You are the quintessential seed-planter. You are sowing unto a great harvest, one day. That day may not be until Heaven, so don’t grow weary in doing well. As you build relationships with nationals, enjoy the smiles of the flower lady while you learn how to understand ‘your children are adorable.’ And you can reply, ‘thank you so much.’ When you ask the butcher ‘how is your family?’ after you have mastered ‘one pound of ground beef, please,’ this is seed-planting. Then you ride the bus as a family and you befriend the student who gave up her seat for your kids–this is a significant thing. And your kids? Every moment holds the weight of glory. Each time you sit down on the hardwood floor to play Legos or Polly Pockets is the thing which cannot be taken away from you. And the bedtime stories? Priceless. The tiny prayers and the tender holds all form an embrace of security which will grow your children strong.

It can be so hard to connect with the Lord. Life is full and there’s so much to do and learn. But you must find a favorite spot to get away and be with God. Look for a café, or park bench, or fountain, or walking path. Schedule time to go and be away with Jesus. It can all get so confusing. You’ve worked so hard to get to your overseas home. So, of course, you need to do the missionary work of settling in, and developing ministry through church and home. But the full truth is God is more concerned with you, your heart, than anything you will ever do for Him. He has led you halfway around the world to bring you Home. Home to His heart. The God of the Universe is full-on pursuing you. So, don’t let the overwhelming busyness and awkwardness of your missionary life distract you from what’s most important. Please dear one, I don’t say this to condemn you, but to invite you to the luxurious gift of time in His presence. I promise you won’t regret it.

Let go of your fears. God has you in His hands. He is the author of your story and the stories of everyone in your family. You can send your mind into an anxiety-laced swirl thinking about what could happen. Just say ‘no’ to this. You may do it a thousand times a day, but the answer is always the same. Come what may, you will be an overcomer. And dear one, please know, if your great fear of not being able to make it, and for some reason having to return home, comes true, it is ok. Yes, it is ok. Because your life is a golden thread of redemption. There is nothing which could happen that He won’t make completely new and cause to shine brighter and brighter until the full light of day. This is the God He is and the One you want your life to glorify, no matter what.

In the end I want to pour out my heart to you, because you are simply amazing. You have no idea how exquisitely beautiful, truly capable, utterly courageous and fully powerful you are. You doubt yourself, your worth, so much. It breaks my heart and God’s heart. Receive the love which gave up all its heavenly grandeur to become low and so bring you high to where He now reigns. He has placed His life in you. You shine forth His beauty and it is glorious. You are glorious, a wonder who has laid down her life to follow Him. He sees every bit of who you are and declares it gorgeous. You are precious in His eyes and honored and He loves you. He longs to wrap you in the tenderest of embraces. Let Him, dear one.

All my love,

Your Older Self

Does Any of It Belong to Us?

Antigua Guatemala

“The moment that you think something you do belongs to you, you lose the way.” – Rigoberta Menchu

It was when I was in my senior Latin American Culture class, as I read ‘I Rigoberta’, that I discovered this quote. Since my copy of the book was in Spanish, I looked for the exact same spot in an English translation so I could share it, in the same essence, with others.

It was as if I had found the holy grail—a way to navigate my own journey.

Since that senior level class, 23 years have passed. I have had roughly seven jobs in teaching and Christian ministry. I have spent four and a half years living in and studying another culture. I have moved 12 times and spent time all in-between in transition. I said goodbye to my Mama. I said hello to hundreds of new friends.

Like a weathered, leather-bound classic, this quote has stayed with me. I printed and laminated it for my Spanish students because I wanted them to remember. I shared it on my own blog a few years ago because the world needs to know. And I write about it now, to you, because its something that will preserve you if you lean into it.

To lean into these words is to guard our hearts from the seductive ways of possession. It provides accountability when we all-too-easily fall into the trap that things we do (or make or have) belong to us. It is a safeguard to a wilderness of our own making, where we wander, lost and out of touch with God and others.

Am I overstating things here?

I don’t think so. What happens when we lose our job? A child is sick or rebels? The church or ministry is not growing? The bitter fruit of our faulty understanding shows we have lost the way. We get angry. We become depressed. We get lost—numbing our minds and bodies and hearts to the pain.

It’s the oldest trap of all. Laced through all of our stories set in this fallen world. Didn’t Eve somehow believe that the tree, the choice, belonged to her? In an instant she lost the way. This is the inheritance of humanity and something we all must come to see.

But what if we learn to ‘keep the way’?

It was almost exactly four years ago when I had an extreme episode of hyper-mania (a symptom of bipolar disorder). I lay in that communist-style hospital, my basic dignity, ministry and home stripped away. In unspeakably hard ways, I was learning that none of it truly belonged to me. And too, that all of it, belongs to God.

So, as I walked the next days, I began to sense it was the Lord’s desire that I share my journey with bipolar disorder, openly, for all the world to read. I was terrified. I already felt so vulnerable. How could I do this?

Because not even this very personal journey truly belongs to me. If I open myself up to share my story, I create a space for the Spirit to work through my life. If I let go of the label being stuck on me, or my weakness being how people define me, then I can walk through a door called Redemption. I can see how courage inspires courage. I can find others who want this posture to define their story too. Together, we become something all together new, all together God’s.

I love more than this quote. I love, admire and respect Rigoberta Menchu’s life and story.

After her family had been killed in horrific ways, in exile, she narrated ‘I Rigoberta’ to Elizabeth Burgos. She could easily have held the anger and pain to herself, but she didn’t. She shared her story because it wasn’t ultimately hers alone. It belonged to the people of Guatemala, and to all of humanity.

But in the end, it is how this quote speaks to One Life extraordinarily. When the Son of God laid down all of His heavenly grandeur—the worship, the riches, the glory, the perfect relationship with the Father—He said it didn’t belong to Him. But it did! He had every right to claim it all. But he didn’t. He never, for one moment, lost the way. And in so doing, He made a way for us all.

Does Forgiveness Seem Impossible?

“Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. The hard truth is that all people love poorly. We need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hour increasingly. That is the great work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family.”

― Henri J.M. Nouwen

We all know the feeling. The one that lurks around the dark corners of the heart and threatens to choke. It’s obscene, yet like the Great Deceiver masquerades as an Angel of Light. It beckons and says ‘cling to me, to this hard thing in you, for it will make you strong.’ It promises to forge a path to freedom only to encircle with chains. It’s insidious just like the sin which weaves all through us. And the only way to be free of this darkness is to walk this path of forgiveness. But how? It just seems utterly impossible.

When I comb through the pages of my life story I see the ugly places. I see where the hardness rooted deep within. For me it was the mother I loved deeply. Yet I hated how her sadness and unmet expectations bound me to living my life to bring her happiness. It was the friend who broke my heart when he couldn’t give me the love I craved. It was the teammate, the leader, the sister in Christ who seemed to never really ‘see’ me. The slights added up and stuffed the love channels of my heart until I could barely breathe.

How can we truly ever forgive? Especially, I have found, when the other doesn’t ask for forgiveness or believe they ever wronged us. At the end of the day, it’s like a very deep pit which can bury alive. When the hot, hard breaths begin, we cry out for Life.

Have you been there dear friend? Are you there now? How are you responding? Are you shoving it all back down and motoring on in busyness? Are you languishing and nursing the hurt? Are you waiting for the chance to retaliate? Do you really even know what is going on inside? It is my prayer that, through reading this, we will all begin to see where we lack forgiveness and then, how we can forgive.

“To forgive another person from the heart is an act of liberation.” -Henri J.M. Nouwen

It is important to see that forgiveness is ultimately a promise. It is a journey Home. It is a path we learn to walk which leads to the wholeness and the freedom we so deeply crave. The need to forgive and be forgiven is also something which defines our humanity. To be human is to hurt and be hurt. The alienation which is a part of the Fall touches us all and drives us apart from one another and from God. It is learning forgiveness which brings us back together.

And the power to forgive can only come through the Gospel.

Every summer I worked at the English Camp for our ministry in Hungary, I would meditate on Philippians 2:1-11. I knew the Enemy would be hard at work seeking to divide our team as we presented the Gospel to hundreds of students. It was transforming as I worked my way through each part of the passage.

Here are some of the parts which most stayed with me and relate to forgiveness: (passages paraphrased as I remember them)

‘If you have any encouragement in Christ’ (v.1) This whole learning process of becoming small, laying down our rights, looking into our own hearts on the path to unity, happens because of the encouragement of Christ in our lives. It’s a gentle pleading. ‘Will you walk this way because of what Jesus has given you?’ The beauty of this can melt our hearts and put us well on our way.

‘If you have any comfort from love’ (v.1) Has Christ’s love ever comforted us when we messed up or were hurt? We can no more deny this journey of forgiveness than we can His love for us.

Then make my joy complete by having the same love, being of one mind and of one accord.’(v.2) Paul’s joy being complete is a small reflection of God’s joy as we come together in one mind and one accord. So, as we long for God’s joy, we must long for forgiveness which brings reconciliation and unity.

‘Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourself’ (v.3)  Wow, is this ever hard! Yet it’s because of the encouragement and comfort we receive from Christ that we can do this. And too, this verse is calling our hearts to pause and ask ‘where is my selfish ambition or vain conceit’? A lack of forgiveness has an ugly root found in the decaying flesh of who we once were. The person that is dying but is not yet dead. It’s the self that longs for status, approval and to be the center of everything.

‘Let this mind be yours that was in Christ Jesus’ (v.5) Now it’s like that ‘Jesus take the wheel’ moment. “Ok, YOU show me how it’s done, because this is impossible.’

‘Who being the very nature God did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant’ (v.6-7) Wham! It always hits me. This one we look to left all of the glory of eternity, of God, to become nothing. And in his life, every single person hurt him. Whether it was the slighting of unending patronizing or the drama of hammering the nails into his hands and feet upon the cross. And yet, He forgave them all. And so much more, his entire life, death and resurrection was for the forgiveness of all. The unending betrayal of God himself was forgiven as far as the east is from the west.

‘And being found in human likeness, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.’ (v.7b-8) I am always amazed to really stop and think how Jesus had to learn obedience. The perfect life he lived was one of continually submitting his will to the Father’s, of learning to forgive. It is a great encouragement offered to us. As we follow him in the path of forgiveness, he is intimate with all of its details.

Do you see the beauty, friends? Forgiveness is what causes the contours of our hearts to become shaped like Jesus’ very own. It is a groaning, birthing process where new life is formed. Yet it is a dying way too where we let go of what cannot remain. And it is a road we all must follow as we journey Home.

I don’t want to seem like I am glibly speaking these things to you. My own road to forgiveness has been long and arduous. Yet by God’s grace, we can all be closer to perfect forgiveness today, than we were yesterday.

As I finish this post, I feel this urgency to speak it plain and clear. There are wounds, I can see them open and gaping. They are tearing apart families, teams and organizations. Only forgiveness will heal. Only the journey of a thousand miles we must begin with a single step. And it will only come through the supernatural reality of the God who took on flesh, embracing us and leading us to healing, wholeness and Home.

 

 

Can Prayer Really Move Mountains?

Do you answer ‘yes’ to the above question? Or, if you are honest, do you say ‘no’?

We know what God says–to call out to Him always. He says to come before Him alone and with others. He promises again and again to hear and do amazing things in our lives and the world.

Yet, we often miss it. How do we put away the guilt of not praying or believing like we’re ‘supposed’ to? How do we get passed our feelings that when we pray it seems like nothing happens? How do we begin afresh with wonder and faith? How do we take God at His word, at His promise, to hear and answer our prayers and yes, move mountains?

Here are some ways to begin on the journey:

  • Be inspired. Know the stories.

In Hungary, a country where I’ve been blessed to minister, there comes a prayer-inspiring story.

It was shortly after the Iron Curtain came down, when the doors were wide open and the spiritual vacuum vast.

The Cru staff in Hungary were having many, many in-depth, genuine, spiritual conversations. However, they began to be grieved as they were seeing very few people come to Christ. This led the leadership to call for a month of prayer in March of 1991. They pulled out of ministry, three days a week, at one of the most crucial ministry times of the year, to pray.

They saw several benefits after this including a 200% increase in those coming to Christ. They also experienced an awakening in prayer which would become a communal discipline.

In December of 1993 they met for another month of prayer. They prayed all day, confessing sins, their own and the country’s, and pleading with God for breakthrough in their ministry.

The following month, key leaders from the Cru ministry were introduced to a Hungarian minister of health charged with AIDS prevention for all of Hungary. Miracle after miracle happened until, in 1995, a Christian-based AIDS and drug prevention curriculum was launched in the secondary schools of Hungary through a partnership between Cru staff and the Hungarian government.

Since then, in Hungary alone, hundreds of thousands of young people have been exposed to the Gospel and given many moral directives for their lives. Now it is in 75 countries, in some it is called ‘Crossroads’, and only Heaven will show the impact.

All because God heard the prayers of those burdened for their country and host country, as they radically committed to come to Him. To read the whole story from Hungary, follow this link and read pp. 101-182

Have you heard these stories?

When one man, Moses, interceded for the entire Israelite people, and they were not destroyed?

How about Frank Laubauch whose practiced attentiveness to God led him on a journey which included a world-wide literacy campaign?

There are many more stories from a book called ‘Fireseeds’.

  • Be willing to sacrifice.

Every great move of God through prayer has come with sacrifice. Yet, what I have found in ministry and missions, is that, sadly, too often, we are not willing to sacrifice. Sometimes, like in Hungary, God is calling His people to give their work, essentially their ministry identity, to Him, so they can pray.

But the fury of questions holds us back. ‘What about all this ‘work’ I raised support and gave up so much to do?’ ‘Isn’t praying lazy, when I could be ministering here or there?’ ‘Will God even hear? I feel like I have been praying and things seem even worse.’ And there’s a host of other things.

We are held back, too, by the forces of evil. So often, these don’t show themselves as clearly what they are. They are masked in things like busyness, success, desire for self-worth in what we do. Prayer forces us to deal with everything that keeps us from God. It challenges our core belief of who is really in control. So, here, it is the sacrifice, often of our self-reliance, which is needed for us to draw close to God.

Whether rising early, traveling far, staying awake through the watches of the night, being willing to openly confess sin, letting go of the strategies and plans of people, or in many other ways, we are called to sacrifice. And, as with all things, God’s plan is to give us ‘immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine’ as we come to Him.

  • Draw your line in the sand.

In my early to mid-twenties, when I thought I could save the world, I remember making a type of vow. It went like this, ‘Lord, if you took away all of my other gifts and abilities and just let me pray, I would do it with all of my heart and be thankful.’

It was strangely prophetic. In my journey of the past three and a half years, I have seen my identity, and basic sense of competency taken away. Yet, through it all, my prayer life has only gotten stronger. So that many times, whether morning, noon, or in the watches of the night, all I find myself doing is praying.

I don’t share to say ‘hey, look at me…praying!’ But, I do humbly share, the grief and burden of my heart for this broken world is pressing upon me as never before. In many ways, it is because I have come close to death and know the time is short and eternity so close for all of us.

I raise the banner high and yes, draw that line in the sand. Because I believe God can give any one of us the faith to move mountains, to see a whole, wide world come to know Him, simply because we pray and believe.

  • Don’t lose heart.

 If I could look you in the eyes, I would plead with you to ‘not lose heart.’ If God has burdened you to pray, then pray. Even if no one will pray with you, still…pray. It can be lonely. But, truly, there is nothing more beautiful than prayer.

I remember sixteen years ago, after my mom had just died, I was living with my father. His heart was hurting so terribly, but he rose daily to pray. He prayed in the midst of great pain, as he had done each morning for as long as I could remember. Because of this, the constancy of his prayer life has never wavered.

Today, he prays daily for revival. He intercedes for this lost world that God would rend the Heavens and come down. He prays with all the faith of years of believing in God’s goodness. I believe God WILL hear his prayers and what a day that will be!

It’s true. Life hits us hard. It’s tough to keep breathing, sometimes impossible to stand. But we can always fall to our knees. We can always lay prostrate. We can always cry out to God. These are often the most moving supplications to God’s ears. He’s the Abba Father and He longs for our prayers.

It’s easy to let your heart be hardened. It’s easy to get jaded. It’s easy to have unbelief creep in until it’s a molded cast over your spirit. It’s a broken world and depending on where you read this from, so very, very broken.

But still, I say, ‘don’t lose heart.’ It’s your heartbeat on the line and because of that, it’s Heaven’s and Earth’s heartbeat yearning to be sound and whole forever. What if we all come to see that it’s do or die, life or death, faith or unbelief, God’s Spirit at work or silenced? Mountains would be moved, nations healed and the Kingdom of God ushered in.

Do you have a mustard seed of faith, a child-like trust, a spark which can light up this whole wide world? Yes, I believe you, you and you do. Yes, I believe today, right now, is the time to start praying like you mean it, like God and all His promises are real. Together we can lift the weary on eagle’s wings and see the nations come to Him. Together we can turn the tide and raise the banner of hope. Together we can.

 

When We Hurt Those We Love Most

 

I lay prostrate on the hardwood floor of our Budapest flat. I was pounding my fist and screaming unintelligible things as I lost my struggle with hyper-mania (a symptom of bipolar disorder). My children had been taken to a friend’s house. But not before they heard me shouting at their father. My husband found himself slipping deeper and deeper into a vortex of uncertainty.

I was hurting those I love most and was unable to gain enough control to stop the hurting.

A couple of days after this I entered the hospital. My husband and kids experienced more days of instability and separation. There were a few moments,`when my husband came to see me, not knowing I had been moved to the ICU. As the doctor brought him into his office, he was petrified something had happened to me.

Then, one week after I left the hospital, we returned to the States.

Every one of the people I care most for in this world was profoundly impacted by me. They experienced hurts, wounds, things that broke my heart, and I was helpless to protect them. I couldn’t even protect myself.

I know I am not alone. We all hurt those we love, so often through circumstances and trials beyond our control. It all makes us feel afraid of how the damage will ultimately affect them. It makes us grieve the innocence the hurt has taken. It makes us unsure in these relationships. It makes us feel lost.

As we reflect on these tragic times in our lives, how can we learn from them? How do we live well on the other side? I want to share with you a few things God taught me through the hardest season in my life and how it hurt those I love:

  1. Release the guilt and shame: To move forward, beyond the hurt, we must let go. When those we love are wounded by us, whether inside or outside of our control, we feel helpless to move forward. The Enemy loves the guilt and shame which go along with this. He would love for us to steep in this until we sink down, far away from those we love. However, this is not the Great Healer’s desire. He wants to make us new from the deepest place. He asks us to give to Him those ruminating thoughts of all we could have, should have done to prevent what happened. He wants us whole so He can restore what was lost and give something even greater.
  2. God is the Author: As we begin to release we learn this great truth. It is God who authors every story, not us. His script is poignant and sure. He doesn’t waste a line with bad prose. The dark pages have corresponding light ones. It is all sealed with the unmistakable stuff of redemption. And it is only he who bears this hope deep within who will have the eyes to see such a story. So He calls us to find hope in the pain and press hard into our trust in Him. Indeed, we can surrender to Him those most dearest. He has already wrapped His arms solidly about every part of them, shaping their story with His loving hands.
  3. Lean into Community: As I walked those days leading to the hospital, in the hospital and the months of recovery after, I desperately needed others. In these times we all do. It is our pride and fear which makes us unable to receive help. But we all need friends and family who will love on our kids, make meals for our families, distract them from the obvious and so much more. We have to say ‘yes’ to them. And the truth is, even though we fear judgment, people just want our families and us to know we are loved. So we have to trust here too. When we remain unable to be what our loved ones need, others can help fill in the gap until we are strong enough. Yes, it is incredibly humbling, but it is also right and true. This is something we must carry with us on this long road home.
  4. There is always a New Day: No matter how hard the circumstance, or how deep the hurt, there is always the sun rising the next morning. It shines upon us and on those we love. There is the promise renewed, faithfulness which hovers and great compassion to sustain. Psalm 103 says the Lord remembers our frame, He knows we are dust. In His tenderness, He pledges to be all we cannot be. His grace leads us Home to His heart where all is being renewed. He carries intimately, tenderly all who He loves, and even more so as the need is greater. He is hope and hope does not disappoint. Moving forward this must be the melody which greets us.

I don’t know where this post finds you, but I do know you have hurt those you love. It happens every day in big and small ways. And in this, we need to find our way back. We need to press into truth and grace, all that Jesus is. And we need to face the hurt, others and ours. Sometimes it is all so obvious and other times it is subtle. Regardless, there is no task, no service, no ministry important enough to deny the pain. And if we deal with it, we will find the healing and redemption of God greater than we could have imagined.

Who Are ‘The Least of These’?

 

If I close my eyes, her vivid image appears. She sits, destitute, outside the SPAR supermarket. Skin wrinkled and leather-like, she has been in the sun too long. Her life has become reduced to a tiny meal here. Perhaps there is a smoke there.  And, in the end, a cup of cold water?

Her story seems to jump onto center stage when we think about ‘the least of these’. Jesus’ words echo in the Gospel of Matthew: ‘As you have done unto the least of these, so have you done unto me.’

In every country, on many street corners, we have opportunities to live out Jesus’ words. And this we must do. But is Jesus saying something more than this?

I will give another example, this one very personal. When I was strapped to a foreign hospital bed, my battle with bipolar disorder raging, I was the one poor in spirit, ‘the least of these’. I think of those who ministered to me. They sat by my bed and love poured through their eyes. They read to me, prayed with me, brought me food and just simply listened. I have no doubt they were heeding Jesus’ command to do unto the least of these as is done unto Him.

Then there are those who issue great challenge, but no less fit into the category of the least. It’s the teammate who is covering their pain with a hardness that causes friction all around. Their story is unharvested, untold. Inside they are begging for someone to give of themselves in time spent together or a listening ear. Yet, they remain alone, naked, in need of the covering of grace.

As with any command of Jesus, there are nuances which can only be understood by deep heart connection with Him. We need to learn to see with His eyes, hear with His ears, love with His heart.

Why?

Because until we can see Him in all of these examples, we may win battles but lose the war. We may get that meal for a stranger in Jesus’ name but then hate our brother or sister in our heart. We may become so busy with ministry, we have no time for the poor. And so, we miss it. The challenge of ‘the least of these’ is lost to us. We have given here but held back there and so short-changed the One who deserves everything.

Taking one aspect of this, it has been said the number one reason missionaries leave the field is conflict with other missionaries. This should be heart-breaking to us. Something is wrong when our ability to love is not enough. All of the arduous journey to get overseas is cut short. It’s tragic.

But what if our lens begins to change? What if we start to see our difficult teammate in the same way we see the person asking for money outside the store? In the same way Jesus sees both of them. What to one person is a few coins given in love, is to the other a service done from the genuine affection of our heart. How different would our relationships, teams, families look if we lived like this?

Then too, we must learn, as I did so broken, helpless and frail in that Hungarian hospital bed. At times we become the least who need the compassion of others. When our pride is laid down, we are each naked in our vulnerability as we experience so many things which break us. We must learn to remain in our nakedness, exposing our hearts, so that others may cover us, love us, be Jesus to us.

Who are ‘the least of these’? It’s her. It’s him. It’s me. It’s you. But most, it’s our Savior who calls us to live like Him. And he enables us to do so because every morning is grace which covers, every blessing is water which quenches, and every bit of love is food which satisfies. He is perfectly to us what He would have us be to others.

What Does God Want From Me?

 

I swayed back and forth perched on the swing. Looking out from the hilly courtyard of my flat, I could see the tall cement apartment complexes. They represented tens of thousands of people who needed to hear about Jesus.

Just beyond what I could see, was a city of two million. The vast majority did not know the love of the one true God. And then there was our specific mission—to reach high school students. There were 200 high schools and tens of thousands or more young people who had been the heart of our vision to come.

Yet, I asked God, ‘why am I here?’ It seemed as though I couldn’t touch any of them. The mission was so big and I was so small.

So with mounting emotion, I asked again, ‘why am I here?’ As I waited in the silence, I heard his answer. ‘I brought you here for you. I didn’t bring you here to be the most successful missionary, but so I could refine you and make you mine.’

It was a hard answer to accept and still is. We had spoken to so many churches and with so many people about the vision for this country and its people. How could He have brought me thousands of miles from home for…me?

But it was true and it still is true. And I have come to realize I am in good company.

Think of Abraham. God’s promise was to make him a great nation. Yet, he had no child and so Abraham’s heart, his trust in God, was tested again and again. Until after his promised child came. Then God asked for more of Abraham. He asked him to sacrifice his one and only son, the child of the promise. Why? Because more than a mighty nation, God wanted Abraham’s devotion to Him. (see Genesis 22:1-18)

What about Elijah? The prophet spoke for God faithfully. Then he gave everything on a mountain to defeat evil in Israel once and for all. The victory he had over the prophets of Baal was one of the most stunning feats recorded in the Bible. Yet, what happened next? He fled in fear and wished to die. And what did God do? He met him personally, tenderly in the cleft of a rock and with a whisper. Why? Because more than a monumental victory, God wanted Elijah to know Him. (see I Kings 18:22-19:18)

Then, there’s Peter. He was called to walk beside the Messiah. He showed great promise only to miss it and mess up again. And in Jesus’ greatest hour of need, he denied him—the one he had sworn to die for. But here too, what did God want of Peter? When he was restored to ‘feed [Jesus’] sheep’, he was asked one question again and again ‘Do you love me?’ God didn’t want Peter’s zeal but his affection. (see John 21:15-19)

In the courtyard moment, it seemed strange and just too simple to think God wanted me most of all. Wasn’t it just an excuse for not doing more, working harder, giving more fully to the mission? How could my one solitary heart be so important to him?

My heart is this important (and so is yours) because God’s work happens through surrendered lives. It happens through people who know the One for whom they are living. It happens through the active power of God at work within and through his chosen ones. And it happens, so often, after or during failures and shortcomings. It happens in ways in which everything we are is tested.

‘Who can endure the coming of the Lord?… for he is a refiner’s fire’. The greatest things God wants to bring to His world, even the completion of His work and the return of Jesus, come only through purified hearts. It is both freeing and painful. And it is what He is ultimately about in us. It is what He most wants from us.

A new year is coming. It’s a time to re-assess where we are at in our journey. Does God have our hearts? Do we believe he wants us more than anything we do for Him? Do we believe He is big enough to complete his work simply through refining us?

In the end, we cannot give what we do not have. If God is not our treasure and we are not fully open to His molding of us, we cannot give this away to others. And yet, if he is, there is no limit to the beauty, the miracles, the new life—both within and without—that we will see.

Support Teams, Vulnerability and Applause?

My hands are shaking in a jerky vibration. My legs are unsteady as they threaten to give way. There are one hundred people in front of me. It is a group from a church which has just begun to support our ministry. My husband just introduced me. Now they are waiting to hear a part of my story. It’s the part I would most like to hold back.

It is as though I am at the edge of a cliff. In the expanse there is an echoing call. Will I leap forward into the unknown, into vulnerability? Or will I take the safe path?

I close my eyes to ready myself for the plunge. I open my mouth and start to speak. We have just talked about our story, how we had to return to the States. It’s a vague thing until they hear my piece.

So I say it.

I tell them how a bout of hyper-mania landed me in a Hungarian hospital for 2 weeks. I speak the diagnosis of bipolar disorder and I try to keep breathing. It’s all ashes, but somehow the Spirit tells me my voice is the beauty.

When I finish, something unexpected happens. There is the ring of applause. Applause. It is a shocking thing. And I realize again how vulnerability changes the world.

Why? How?

Because when we choose to speak the hard, open up the wounds, bring others into our honest story, we touch the pulse of human need. We need to know we are not alone. We need to know we are more than our tragedies. We need to know there is hope in the pain, life after death, and freedom from bondage. When these needs are met we become someone altogether new.

However, as missionaries, the tendency can be to think we must be strong before others. But, I truly believe there is a better way—one which leads straight to the heart of God.

Here are some reasons to choose vulnerability:

  • Because Jesus did: Jesus emptied himself of everything. Pride. Reputation. Stature. He never appeased the crowd. He laid down every care of what others would think to live the life he was called to live. He formed his communication of the truth about himself, knowing it would open him up to rejection. His story is lined with tragedy and brokenness. Yet, in it all, he lived vulnerably in a way which overcame the world. He calls to us to know and be like him.
  • Because we want true community: Establishing a team of supporters is difficult. There is much work of casting vision, travel, late nights and early mornings. It is easy to want to hang onto it all tightly. But, the better way is to let go, risk sharing vulnerably, because we want the comfort, strength and warmth of true community. As we do this, we will become surrounded by those who love us, not the perfect missionary. We will find those who labor in prayer for our needs, because they know those needs, and believe their support is crucial to the victory.
  • Because we give courage to others: The beauty of vulnerability is that as we share our brokenness, it gives others the courage to do the same. They are freed from the hissing lie which says they must hide their weakness. They too gain freedom to be honest with others about what their life really is. Our vulnerability becomes, for them, a stepping stone to, perhaps, an even greater experience of it.
  • Because we are strengthened by it: The discipline, the lifestyle, of vulnerability is a gift. While it as an invitation for others to enter our lives, the greater thing happens in us. By opening up to show our cracked and bleeding places, we remember how we are loved. We are loved inspite of, and more, because of our frailty. It brings forth the tender heart of God.
  • Because through it, we know the Gospel: As missionaries, some of our biggest fears are found in losing reputation and being seen as weak. But when we walk the way of vulnerability, we take away the power of these fears. We make space for the Gospel—the healing of our souls. In the great economy of God, we first receive the Gospel, and then, we are ready to give it away.

I don’t know where this finds you. Are you in a habit of sharing vulnerably? Keep on.

Are you struggling behind closed doors? Please consider opening up to others. It doesn’t have to be everyone, but it needs to be someone. As you take these steps, I know you will find genuine love and acceptance from God and others. You will find great strength and contagious courage. You will find Jesus and all it is to be like Him.

Do You Know Your Host Nation?

I sat along the edge of the Danube river. It was a cool, gray day. I was scratching out thoughts with pen and paper when I stopped and really saw them. The Shoes on the Danube Bank. Metal, weathered reminders of World War II when the people, mostly Jewish, who after being ordered to take off their shoes, were shot into the river.

I felt their bravery, their silent strength. I wondered at their last thoughts. My heart shattered as I gazed upon the tiny shoes–little lives so tragically lost. And I was humbled to touch this deep wound in this city, this country. From fascism to communism, the people were battered and beaten. It was a great, weeping thing I knew that day.

Every nation has a soul. It is the heart of its story and it is calling out to be known. We must make the journey to understand the imprint of this soul upon the holy ground of this nation.

When we become attuned to the soul of our host nation, we gain an entire framework for ministry. Our eyes are focused, our ears really hear and our hearts become like God’s.

So how do we come to know this heart of a nation’s story?  The truth is we can never truly, completely know it, because it is as complex as the convergence of a million souls. Yet we can make this humble journey to know our new home more. To this end, I am going to list some practical steps:

Prioritize: With so many things vying for our attention, it is easy to forget the deep, contemplative things. But in order to learn the soul of our host nation, we must make it a priority. Time needs to be carved out to connect with the story and history of the people to whom we are called.

Plan: Next, we need to plan how we will become learners of the story and soul of this nation. There are memorials, monuments, museums, interviews, documentaries, holidays and history books. It is important to find something which connects with our soul too; something which speaks to our hearts.

Press in: Once we have made it a priority and planned how to learn about the soul of this nation, we press into this story we are learning. We sit with the things we are seeing, hearing, reading. We ask for new eyes to see meaning in the oppression, wars, desperation, heartache. We expect to be changed as we receive into our hearts the soul of the people.

Practice: Now, it is left to cultivate a cross-cultural ministry which is profoundly impacted by what we have come to know. We ought to feel like we have new eyes, ears and a heart prepared to walk ahead in understanding. So we do. We live like in the very depths, this new and different home is connected to ours. We become students of it in an on-going, life-changing way.

We can get so focused on our goals in ministry that we forget we have walked into a story and are meeting its soul. The nuances of our new life are not only adjustments to things like language, shopping and visas. There is, too, this deeper thing.

When Jesus came into the world, he entered time, space, history and culture. He had to do the work of understanding his culture on a soul level. In his ministry, he restored the dignity of the poorest of poor. He saw beyond the political structures and proud leaders to souls over whom he wept. He heard the yearning cries of a nation longing to be re-born. And he knew. He knew the story of humanity and the Jewish people found in the Scriptures. He stayed connected to this as a core element of his ministry.

How could we do anything less?

As I looked upon the shoes that day, I knew I was being handed a gift. Who was I to behold such a tragic, yet heroic memory? Who was I to walk those city streets over bridges repaired after bombings, look upon citadels, and bear witness to the greats?

This whole new life was so much more than me and what I would give. Its healing so beyond my capacity. Its story unable to be rendered in a day, week, month, year or a hundred years. It would take the work of my heart, my soul, and nothing less to learn it, embrace it and live it.

May you make this journey. If you have already begun, may you long to know more, dig deeper, find new parts of the story. It will refresh you in your ministry and connect you to the heart of God.

Do you have a place, memory or story which has connected you to the soul of your host nation?

When I Failed At Missions

The whisper of summer breeze caresses my face as I perch on the concrete steps of New Creation Lutheran Church. This has become a daily meeting hour. After dinner, my fellow team members and I linger outside with the neighborhood kids. They’ll pop wheelies, zig-zag on skateboards or just sit and chat. Some days the girls and I chase bubbles. Some days we all get wet to abate the haze of summer.

It is fun. It is life. It is Gospel. I never want to leave.

My home, this summer, is a two-story brick church on West Tioga Street. It’s located in an area of Philadelphia called the Badlands. Here violence is just a block away. We have experienced the good in the people and the bad in crime. One day we return from downtown and find someone attempted to burn down our church.

And yet, here is where I have come to call ‘home’.  I smell gasoline mixed with stale smoke and too ripe fruit and it is comforting. I play kickball with fast running neighborhood boys until my lungs scream and love every second of it. I make crazy singing ‘Father Abraham’ in front of a hundred kids and with a gigantic smile. I look in eyes and give hope. For nine weeks I tell little lives of big love. I learn the size of God’s heart through my own. I give everything I have.

It is the summer after my sophomore year of college. My heart is just beginning to beat for God and His kingdom.

Last year I had a ‘grace awakening’, coming alive to the gospel in ways which made it feel like I had just begun to believe in Jesus. As I then began to think about missions, during my sophomore year, Bart Campolo came to my college’s chapel and talked about his ministry in Philadelphia called Kingdomworks. That day, I knew this ministry was for me and a few months later I came to Tioga Street.

Now I am here, full of faith. Unafraid. I am ready for anything. I know God is with me and He loves the city. I vow to dedicate my life to urban ministry.

I hug the tear-stained children on my last day. I promise to write. I promise to visit. I promise to come back.

 A few letters I write. I visit once. I don’t come back to stay even for a little while.

In the end, I failed. I left and never came back. Tender hearts would not trust easily again. The pressure of drugs, gangs and despair would weigh heavily and I wouldn’t be there to guide them towards the good.

I have wandered this earth ever since, remembering Tioga Street. Twenty-two summers have come and gone. How could I? How could I leave and just…leave?

I remember the chain-link fence lining the alley next to the church. I sat against it flower-covered journal in hand. I remember writing of a love for the city and the desire to commit my all to it. I was sincere as far as I understood my own heart as a sophomore in college. And yet I failed to make good on my words and what seemed a genuine calling.

Looking back, I am still unsure where I went wrong. Did the fear just creep in? Was my capacity to love limited to nine weeks? Did I lack the faith to raise support for my mission? Did the fear others had for me affect my own?

More importantly, how could I keep going after I failed?

It was a hard question to answer.

One summer I gave everything and yet later, suffered the guilt of not loving longer, of not being truer, of not risking more.

But in my quest for peace with my past, I came to see this failure as a part of a greater plan, a greater story. It was not mine to carry like so much weight on my shoulders.

Failure defines us one way or another. It can consume us, planting seeds of fear, shame, guilt or unworthiness. Lord knows I have lived this. But, it can also humble us. It shows us our limits. And, if we let it, it profoundly shapes our stories.

My Tioga Street is a love I have surrendered countless times. I have grieved the lives of the children I sought out, visiting their homes, to invite them to our day camp. My heart has broken remembering Ahmad, so tough already at the tender age of eight. I remember how he started to come to Bible study and gave his life to Jesus. Did it change anything? I remember Cely, with her long, glossy raven hair. So beautiful and sweet. What have the years done to her?

It is the deepest heave of my heart to think of Tioga Street. It is a withering strand of my story, as the hope of the ‘might have been’ disintegrates. There is no lasting triumph to give it weight. I can only fully entrust it to the heart of God.

Yet too, in Tioga Street, is the hard, even brutal, lesson for me, the young, immature girl longing to save the world. The humility of this unavoidable nature of my failure is a solid thread woven into my story. I am not the same for having lived it.

I don’t know where this finds you today. Are you coming face-to-face with your failure?

Some of you have loved and left like me. Others of you have stayed and struggled for assurance of your mission. Some of you are in the midst of failure and are not sure what to do next. Regardless, the reality of our lack is something which finds us all. But it doesn’t have to write its bold, black judgment across our lives, our story.

We all fail. We are all humbled. Yet, we must stay the course of our stories allowing the truth of what we have learned to be woven within. We don’t live in fear, doubt, guilt or shame, but remember this is a part of a larger plan. It is God’s and it is His people’s entrusted with the mission of redemption.

Let your failures guide you to perfect love, your story and God’s woven together. And whatever you do, remember, for many of us, there is a Tioga Street. You are not alone.

Come As You Are

come-as-you-are

Last year, my friend told me how she loved my ‘come as you are’ way of being with others. The phrase made me stop and think about what she meant. I knew she was saying something significant.

In Matthew 11 Jesus talks about how he receives us. Here is the Message version:

28-30 “Are you tired? Worn out? Burnt out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

Here, Jesus is saying something very important about how we come to him.

If we aren’t coming to him as we are–with all of our mess, with dirty faces and hands and feet–we’ll become tired, worn out, burnt out trying to live something we aren’t.  In turn, others won’t taste the grace-giving waters which flow from His hand as we come freely to him.

As I have thought about it further, I realize my friend gave me a huge compliment. I am entirely unsure if I live it even part of the time. But I have come to think of it as my true north.

All of this reminds me of a conversation with my friend who is many years ahead of me in ministry and life. She commented on what it was for her to receive Hungarian women into her home. She said she bought the same pastries they would at the corner store. She put down her recipes and specialty drinks and she made herself one of them. It was all in the hopes they would be empowered to know they could give and receive just as they were.

‘Come as you are’ is a posture. It is the heart of hospitality. It is laying down the perfect hair, outfit, aroma of freshly baked goods and picked-up home. It loves people enough to give grace and our real selves, so they learn to do the same.

As a woman, I have spent most of my marriage and all of my motherhood crucifying myself between two thieves. The one is perfection and the other is failure. The one takes all of me and the other tells me I have nothing to give. They each battle to have full say in my mind, ramping up their efforts at just the right time.

Come As You Are.

It’s a holy whisper in the dark night of the soul. It’s an oasis in this wilderness I have roamed too often. It’s the words spoken to me and the ones I want to live. It’s the life I want and the one I want others to have.

Let it be our mantra during this Advent season. There is so much potential to receive and be received by others. Yet, there is so much opportunity for the Thief to come and steal. And so, there are many reasons to learn just this:

Come as You Are.