On Church and Change

NEW VERSUS NORMAL

In the fourteen years that I helped put together church services for Family Christian Center, we did some crazy out-there stuff.  Trying to describe to new friends what my role was like is almost comical.  People listen to me talk about the animals and their excretions, the Thriller zombies, and shooting arrows into screens and their first reaction is usually to laugh.  Some of the risks we have taken paid off with highly effective services, and some have made for great stories later.  HA!  Brooke, our fourteen-year-old, travels with us now after growing up at Family Christian Center.  For her, all these things that sound extreme to others are just normal life.  In her world, it’s just how you do church.  If you don’t have a city bus on stage, miniature horses, or human torches, she’s a little bored.  At least blow something up!  It sounds over the top, but she is growing up to a new normal in church life.

Everyone who grows up in church or gets saved in church has an idea of what they believe church should be like.  Usually it is very connected to the first spiritual experience we had in church.  The atmosphere where we first felt a God connection often defines our preferences for the rest of our lives.  We get resistant to anyone who tries to change what we enjoyed so much.  Sometimes it’s the number of songs being sung, or the length or content of the preaching that we get hung up on.  Interestingly enough, however, what seems traditional to you today was radically new to someone else in the previous generation!

The form of church services themselves has changed dramatically throughout history.  In the Old Testament, God spent entire books of the Bible explaining in great detail exactly how he wanted his people to worship him.  He gave them specific instructions about everything, from the ceremonies to the size of the room and the decorations, with no room for personal freedom or creativity at all in the expression of it.  As the years went along, it become more and more apparent that it just wasn’t working.  Throughout the books of prophecy, God expressed his dissatisfaction with the way people were worshipping.  They did the rituals well enough, but their heart wasn’t in it.  God wanted more.

THE IRRELEVANT DEBATE 

When Jesus came, something incredible happened to the way humanity interacts with divinity.  There is a fascinating conversation that Jesus had with a Samaritan woman that changed the way we do church forever.  It reversed everything that humans understood about the way God wanted to be worshipped.  Jesus began this conversation with some small talk and then abruptly switched gears by reading this woman’s mail and telling her he knew about her checkered past.  After she got over her surprise, she took advantage of the moment to ask what for her was a very pressing question.

“19 The woman said to Him, ‘Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship.’ 21 Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. 24 God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.’”  (John 4:19-24)

This is an over-simplified explanation of a complicated history, but I think it will help you understand the premise for her question.  Bear with me for a moment.  Moses made the Tabernacle per God’s request when the Jews wandered the desert for forty years.  It was a portable church venue essentially—a tent.  Whenever they stopped for a few days, the Tabernacle was set up, and when it was time to leave, it all packed up and came with.  Once they settled in what is now Israel, the Tabernacle was permanently set up on Mount Gerazim because there was no longer any need to move it around.  The Jews would go up this mountain to worship God.  When David came to power generations later, he built himself an impressive palace in Jerusalem.  He felt guilty that he had such a nice place and God still lived in this old tent.  He decided to built a temple, which his son, Solomon, wound up building.  After they finished the temple, they moved the Ark of the Covenant, which housed the presence of God, from the tent on Mount Gerazim to the new temple.  Some of the Jews were very offended by this move.  After all, their ancestors had been worshipping on that mountain for generations!  They believed that the change was wrong.  These Jews continued to worship on Mount Gerazim, even after the ark was no longer there.  They became known as the Samaritans, and this difference of religious opinion divided them for hundreds of years from the Jews who worshipped in the Temple.  What this Samaritan woman was asking was this: Since you, Jesus, seem to be in God’s inner circle, please resolve this debate once and for all and tell us what God wants!

Jesus’s response was incredibly radical.  He told the Samaritan woman that she was asking the wrong question.  God couldn’t care less where they worshipped.  What really mattered to God was the authenticity of the heart behind the worship.  Jesus was saying that for the first time in the history of humanity, the form did not matter anymore.  This was a complete change!  The focus of worship was no longer on ritual and tradition, but based on emotional and spiritual connection first before any spiritual expression.  Jesus was saying that the way you worship, the mechanics of it, is irrelevant.  God had been given form and procedure for thousands of years, but what he really wanted was something that was heartfelt, not just a duty.  God wanted people who would worship him from their spirit, or from the very essence of their identity, and they would worship truthfully, authentically.  He changed the paradigm of the way worship would happen forever!  In essence, as long as our services are leading people toward connection with an genuine God moment, pretty much anything goes.  There is no formula, no set anything!

That day, something fundamentally changed about the way we connect to God.  It went from thousands of years of sameness to several thousand years of never the same.  Since that conversation, church worship has been consistently changing so that it always reflects a fresh creative expression of our hearts toward him.  Every generation since then has done church a little bit differently.  Today, the expressions of Christian worship all across the world are incredibly diverse.  Islam is the opposite.  No matter where a Muslim is in the world, they worship the same way.  They face Mecca, get down on their knees and pray five times a day—same prayers, same locations, the same way.  Jews are still caught up in form.  I read an article recently about how the Jews have been sneaking up onto the Temple mount to pray recently.  The third holiest Muslim site, a giant mosque, occupies that space currently.  They are willing to risk their lives trying to honor their worship tradition.

CHANGE IN CHURCH

It’s human to love our traditions.  Christians can easily get so caught up in what is familiar that it can become a lid to our creativity.  Instead of a foundation to grow on, it becomes a lid.  Even in the most creative environments, we easily get comfortable in what we have always known, connected to the ritual of doing things the way we have always done them.  It is possible to be so captivated by our history that we miss the freedom that we have to create fresh moments that help our people truly connect in worship.  To Jesus, the benchmark for quality services is that people have authentic God-connection moments.  We have no guarantees that what worked ten years ago is still going to work today.  Every new generation will worship God a little bit differently.

As a young pianist, my teacher emphasized to me that good practice establishes strong neural pathways.  The more I play a song correctly, the easier it is to do it the same way the next time.  The upside of this is that it gets easier to play it well.  The downside is that change becomes more and more difficult if I am playing something wrong.  My family listened to me play a song over and over and over and they would get incredibly sick of hearing that song.  If people are listening to the same song over and over, they get burnt out on it after a few months.

Churches that want to provide quality experiences for their people spend enormous amounts of time, energy and resources getting it right.  Our teams practice carefully to give the best experience we know how to do.  Some of us have gotten really good at it!  Unfortunately, if we do church the same way every week, the same two things happen.  The first is that we will find it harder and harder to change the way we get together corporately, and the second is that people begin to disconnect from their experience because it feels stale and overplayed.  If we allow this to happen, we will miss the new generation.  Bands that have been successful over many years learned how to reinvent themselves again and again.  Most artists aren’t able to do this and have a few years in the sun, then fade back into obscurity.  If we don’t intentionally reinvent the way we do church, particularly for well-established, older churches, we will wind up in the same boat.

Dying churches are full of older people and shrinking every year as they die.  It’s essential that we build change into our church cultures.  It’s very easy to slip into the habit of making decisions based on what we know will work, what we know our teams can pull off to minimize risk.  The bigger and older we get, the harder church leaders find change to be because of fear of losing what has been built over many years of hard work.  We find comfort in our routines, and what was once radical has become traditional.

So what needs to change?  Some things shouldn’t change at all.  Keep certain things central.  The apostles devoted themselves to doctrine.  We have to make sure we are getting it right.  It really bothers me that there are some GenX leaders are moving away from the idea of the Bible being inspired.  We don’t adapt the truths of the gospel around popular opinion. Right and wrong, sin and salvation, the cross and resurrection, the Holy Spirit and his power, the truth of the Bible—these things are foundational. The Sundays we build are only as strong as we build these foundations.

THE MILLENIALS ARE COMING

We have to watch this generation carefully to learn how they connect.  I’ve done some research and some personal observation to arrive at some thoughts about the value systems of Millenials, but these are certainly up for debate.  Purely to prime the pump of your thinking and to get the conversation going, here are my thoughts about what is valuable to Millenials, or GenY.

 

Connection to the past:  Millenials tend to get excited about old buildings being revived, old instruments revived, or old clothing revived.  Hipster culture has reconnected to folk music roots.  Churches are taking old cathedrals and renovating and reviving them.  Vintage instruments are wildly popular.  Reviving old furniture or homes is huge—there are multiple reality shows about this.  Millenials have a value for legacy and history as a point of personal identity.  Perhaps this is because of the homogenization of the cultures of the world.

Value for environmental responsibility:  We can’t ignore this as a church.  Millenials value this responsibility as significantly as they value fiscal responsibility or family responsibility.  This translates in to recycle bins in church, or community gardens and local markets in church parking lots, or composting in church kitchens.

Life is less compartmentalized:  Most people take their work with them wherever they go.  They take work to church, and they take home to work, building communities together that do life together on a broad spectrum.  We don’t go on vacation with the neighbors anymore; we go on vacation with work friends, with the community we connect with that has shared values and interests—and there is a little community for every interest under the sun.  The Millenials are mowing the parks of Detroit.  This should be a government responsibility, but they don’t have a problem crossing over this line.  As the church, we have to figure out how to make church less a Sunday event and more integrated into people’s daily habits.

Intimacy and community:  In a digital age where we are connected to hundreds shallowly online, Millenials crave the intimacy of face-to-face personal relationship. Their relationships have been reduced to a like button.  They desire genuine connection instead of anonymity.  They love being part of a team where everyone is comfortable with each other, not a stiff hierarchy where people are in competition all the time

Millenials aren’t interested in stereotypes:  They do cultural mash-ups all the time in music, in fashion, in art, and in relationships.  We can’t be afraid to cross all kinds of cultural barriers and be inclusive.

Honesty:  Millenials hate pretension or fakiness.  No one has everything a hundred percent together, and authenticity matters,  They don’t like being impressed or schmoozed, and can smell an agenda a mile away.  If we want them to come to our church, we can’t pretend we like them.  We have to actually like them!  They don’t like feeling pressured into community,  It has to happen organically, because people have something in common and genuinely like each other and want to share their lives.  Shared interest connect groups have been pretty successful for this reason.

High value for personal freedom:  They want the flexibility to do life uniquely their way.  Whether it’s in creative expression or in a work environment, micromanagement is the life sucker.  Google is the gold standard for work environments.  If we want to lead young high performers serving in our church, we have to give them some space.  They want to get the job done well their own way.

Cause-driven work:  Millenials want to know that what they are doing is a piece of a larger, important work for humanity. They want to know why their work matters, beyond just bringing home a paycheck. Hair salons are more commonly hosting free makeovers for underprivileged high school proms.  Restaurant owners contribute to community gardens where people can collectively grow fresh produce to give away to anyone who needs it.  Journalists tell stories that expose injustices to inspire change. The “social entrepreneur” is a new industry according to Forbes magazine, and it’s a multi-billion dollar industry.

Smaller venues:  Apparently the American shopping mall is in decline.  Outdoor village-like environments that feel like shopping at boutiques in the city are on the rise.  Millenials find connecting and doing life difficult in giant environments.  Huge venues for one-off events will never go away, but more intimate environments appeal.  They don’t like being crammed into a crowd or standing in a long line or sitting right next to (touching) a stranger.  Milllenials are building smaller venue multi-campus churches with a great community feel, many services and many options.

Financial responsibility:  This generation has grown up in the great recession.  They have seen the credit crunch and are far more wary of debt. They saw their baby boomer parents be under water in their home loans, owing more than their property was worth.  They are less willing to take on multi-million dollar building loans or pay a higher cost per square foot for a larger auditorium.  Openness about financial decisions is of much higher value.  This doesn’t mean they want to control the way their church is spending money, just that they don’t like secretiveness. 

Increased value for quality hand craftsmanship:  Millenials appreciate things that are not just mass-produced.  Pinterest and Etsy have boomed.  For a season, churches felt very corporate, and looked like business buildings.  I think that the churches of tomorrow will reflect this value for craftsmanship.  I’ve seen it in things like hand-carved beautiful wooden pulpits and guitar stands, or handcrafted lighting fixtures in church lobbies.

If these qualities are part of this generation, then we have to think through our systems and presentations from this perspective.  I’m not suggesting that we all need to grow beards and wear vintage Doc Martins.  We just have to think about our methods through these value systems, and reexamine our processes.  If Millenials don’t enjoy feeling pressured into an assimilation system, then maybe we should look at how we word our communication to new guests, or how frequently we are communicating to them.  Is it too heavy?  Does it feel like we genuinely want relationship with them, or is it overly formal and generic?

RETHINKING TO CONNECT BETTER

We need to rethink things.  If we don’t purposefully change by taking risks in areas we don’t understand well, we will stagnate.  It’s not about being cool and trendy.  We have to learn how to make the gospel come to life for every new generation.  Statistics have been telling us for quite some time that the vast majority of Christians made their decision to follow Christ as a young person.  This means that the most important God experiences in church are happening in the lives of young people.  They are important because they are the first of a lifetime of moments.  As the church, we must prioritize and design these moments and design around young people.

What’s tricky is that currently the baby boomers are for the most part leading the church.  To reach young people requires the older generation to let go of their preferences and their ideas about what is cool, and yield style and method to younger preferences.  Boomers, don’t get resentful about this.  I am GenX, looking between Boomers and Millenials.  It won’t be many years before the kids in children’s ministry will be telling me what is cool.  Give those Millenials thirty years, and it will be their turn to yield their preferences!  It is the way Jesus set up the church—each subsequent generation must change.

Just as significantly, we need the older generations.  Boomers have the leadership experience, the skills, and the emotional maturity that churches desperately need.  Just because we are changing does not eliminate the place that older generations have in the church.  Every part is valuable.  Don’t feel excluded or discarded because of the changes that need to happen.  Making space for the preferences of a younger generation does not eliminate our ability to participate in or to lead the process.  It just means that we reinvent our contribution.

We love our traditions and routines because they feel comfortable and familiar, like an old warm fuzzy blanket in front of a fire on a cold night.  They aren’t bad!  It’s just that no one else wants to curl up under your ratty old blanket with you!  It is your blanket, unique to you.  Traditions are the same way.  We can’t expect someone else to love them.  It’s incumbent on the older generations to be willing to change and give way to the styles and methods of the younger generation.  My husband John says when he was younger, his mentors were twenty years older, but now they are twenty years younger.  As leaders, church isn’t for us. It’s our opportunity to present Jesus to others.

Don’t be resentful, because give them twenty years and they will be in the same boat.  We can choose to love what’s fresh because it keeps us young.  More than that, it keeps our heart’s connection to Jesus fresh and active.  Let’s have a yes in our heart to whatever new thing our pastor wants to try.  Let’s keep measuring what we are doing, watching carefully for when systems are getting stale.  Sometimes more than a patch of a new leader is required, and we need an overhaul because that process just isn’t working any more.  We have no guarantee that because something is working now it will always work.

Above all, let’s ask God to give us his heart toward people.  The Bible says that Jesus looked at people and felt compassion.  He can keep us focused on reaching others rather than our own preferences.  If we get our head up long enough to watch people, culture, and trends, we will get genuinely interested.  People know when it’s real!  Let’s build teams that have inclusive spirits, reaching for new people and new ideas.

 

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On Pain and Healing

Rich&Anna
Rich and I circa 2001

WHEN RICH DIED

I don’t often talk about my experiences when Rich, my first husband, died.  It has not been for a lack of dear, sweet people who ask me about it.  In the months and years after his passing, I have found myself tongue-tied again and again, retreating into private grief.  I felt awkward over my halting responses to their questions, which seemed to come off as aloof, or weirdly breezy, or even (to the intrusively inquisitive) chilly.

The real truth of the matter is that for a time after his death, accessing that emotion was, to understate it, overwhelming.  If you have ever been playing in the surf and a rouge wave caught you, flipped you over, and you were lost, unable to find up or down, that’s kind of what I felt like.  Engaging my emotions about it felt like I was drowning, desperate for a breath, pounded by waves of pain, disoriented and confused. When we experience pain, we are all pretty much at our most narcissistic. Just keeping your chin above water, simple survival, takes total focus. A chat about it with someone over coffee somehow felt so trivial, for a while.

Rich and I had been married for two years.  I loved him very much. Those had been two fantastic years leading our youth ministry in a suburb of Chicago, at Family Christian Center.  Things were booming, and we were just getting started. We had so many plans, and it all appeared to be unfolding ahead of schedule.

Rich was an amazing guy. He was tall and extremely charismatic.  He was the kind of guy who made everything he was involved in fun.  He was funny and witty, quick on his feet with a tease.  He was talented, a great performer in anything he did on stage.  He was creative, inspiring, and a strong leader.  He was very good-looking, athletic, with a great voice, bright blue eyes and an easy smile.  He was also very young.  He was just eighteen when he started leading our youth ministry.  Young men a few years older than him called him, “Dad,” which was kind of weird, but I guess it made them feel like they had someone in the world.

To celebrate our second anniversary, we headed out on a road trip for a few days.  When it came time to head home, Rich decided he wanted to leave in the evening and drive all night to get home in plenty of time for our youth meeting the next evening.  I felt a little twinge of anxiety about the choice, but neither of us had any idea just how foolish this decision would be.  I took the first shift driving while he rested in the back seat, and then we traded off.

When I woke, the car was tumbling for what felt like an eternity.  I braced myself and held on until it came to rest upside down.  When I looked over to the driver’s seat, it was empty.  A flood of anxiety and adrenaline rushed through me as I unbuckled my seatbelt, dropped into the broken glass and debris, and crawled out a half-crushed window frame.  There he was, maybe fifty feet away, in a little heap, on the pavement.

The next few hours are very much a blur for me still.  I remember paramedics coming and hovering over him for what felt like an eternity, and them strapping me down to a gurney and whisking me off to the nearest hospital.  I remember the half-whispered conversation of the EMT’s in my ambulance, who looked at me with sad eyes.  I waited in an intensive care unit with a room full of strangers, still strapped down, until a kindly doctor came and told me, with tears in his eyes, that Rich didn’t make it.  I don’t remember much of that day after that besides the pain that welled up inside me, overwhelming in ways I had never known before.  It echoes in me still today as I write this, so many years later.

As much as I felt alone in that moment, I wasn’t unique in my brokenness.  Pretty much all of us have or will carry the weight of intense mental and emotional pain in our own stories.  If you have faced deep pain, my story may have brought up echoes of your own emotions too.  I don’t mean to be cruel by reminding you of those painful days, but we all limp a little bit from places that have been wounded in our hearts.  We are all at varying points of healing from those traumas.

I know people who have been through very difficult situations and are still controlled by their pain, years later.  A wound becomes a state of emotional or mental ill health when things get infected with things like bitterness and fear.  It’s so easy to get stuck in anger, bitterness, or depression.  In the crisis, your brain wants to do everything it can to turn off that pain. It’s tempting to just avoid thinking about the pain and hope it goes away. Pain we don’t deal with winds up controlling our lives.

LIGHTING THE LAMP

In the book of Matthew, Jesus used a metaphor that underlines why it’s so important that we get healed:

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light.  But if your eyes are unhealthy your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!”  (Matthew 6:21-23 NIV)

In this verse’s metaphor, eyes represent the way that we view the world around us.  My worldview will major on either the good things around me or the bad.  If my soul is unhealthy because it’s been wounded, my perspective becomes damaged, distorting what I believe about my life.  A wounded soul is constantly distracted by what is negative and painful.

The Message paraphrase puts it this way.  “If you open your eyes wide in wonder and belief, your body fills up with light. If you live squinty-eyed in greed and distrust, your body is a dank cellar. If you pull the blinds on your windows, what a dark life you will have!”  Unhealthy perspectives come from wounds we have experienced.  Living with hurt impacts everything in our lives.  We will see darkness wherever we look, not because darkness is truly there, but because that is all we can see.  In other words, the world around us just looks bleak and lacking, because we have lost the ability to see past our own pain.  In order for us to accurately see the world around us, we have to be healed from these kinds of traumas.

If we are functioning in a ministry leadership role, it’s even more essential that we prioritize the process of getting healthy again.  Our perspectives don’t just affect our own lives, but the lives of everyone we lead.  We will always reproduce what looks like us.  If we don’t get healing from our own pain, we will reproduce hurt and wounded people in our churches.  A leader’s healthy soul is essential for leading healthy teams.

In my travels, I meet so many amazing pastors and leaders. It’s heartbreaking and alarming to me how many have carried deep wounds and hurts for years and years.  Many beautiful faithful people have continued to lead while wounded for so long, sensing the need and feeling compassionate about their people, but have not been able to lead with joy because of their internal deficit.  Leadership becomes a burden, and their gaze is drawn toward the dark and weak parts of the church instead of taking pride in the strong and good places.

When our soul is healthy, we have strong vision—seeing far ahead.  We can move our focus away from simple survival, which is all about just getting through the next hour, the next day.  We are able to adjust our focus farther ahead, dreaming again.

BABY STEPS

The night I got home from the hospital after Rich died, I made a challenging, deliberate faith decision to believe the best about God’s plan for my life and to trust his goodness.  Making that decision didn’t magically make the pain go away overnight.  Healing is a process that takes a while.  Just like recovering from a major physical injury takes time, getting healthy emotionally is usually not instantaneous.  I definitely didn’t do everything right as I struggled to process it all. I made more than my fair share of mistakes. My journey hasn’t been easy, but it has been a healing one. Now, twelve years later, I have identified some benchmarks along the way that may help you move forward if you have faced significant pain.  Answering each of these areas was a step forward toward healing.

1. Engage the process of healing by facing the pain.

For a while, every morning I would wake up and feel uneasy for a few seconds, trying to remember why things didn’t feel right.  Then it would all come flooding back to me and I would just feel sick.  When enough days of this go by, you really just want to be done with it all.  Obviously, no one wants to live with pain.  We all look for a way to escape overwhelming pain.  Some people run toward things like alcohol or risky living to try and forget.  For me it was probably more keeping myself busy, avoiding being alone, avoid talking about it or thinking about it.  I disengaged from my emotions completely for a while, I think.

The brain has some amazing protective mechanisms and will forget trauma for years, probably because it’s too overwhelming to cope with.  I’ve met women who were abused as children who didn’t remember until they were middle aged.  If we live with unhealed pain long enough, we get numb to its existence.  We get so used to our own dysfunction and pain that it becomes normal, and we don’t even realize it’s still broken.  If some time has passed since the trauma, there may be a process of self-awareness that is required for us to even see clearly what needs healing.

I’m a pianist.  When I was a teenager, I managed to smash my own thumb in the car door.  It was blinding pain.  It hurt so bad I was absolutely convinced in that instant that I had damaged it beyond repair.  Because I am an avoider, I couldn’t even muster up the courage to look at my own thumb.  I had my dad look at it, proclaim that it would not need amputation, and bandage it up.  I didn’t look under the bandage for days.  This was not the smartest thing I ever did.  If I never look at my injuries, don’t clean them out and give them fresh bandages regularly, they will get infected.  Cleaning out an infected wound is super-painful, but it has to be done.  As we lift the bandage and cleanse the scab, we feel the pain of the injury again, but this time it is a healing pain.

We have to learn the difference between healing pain and injury pain.  It may hurt for us to address it now, but the next time it needs cleaning, it’s going to hurt a little less as it heals.  I had to allow God to expose some of those painful places in me, again and again, and let him clean them out—memories, attitudes, fears, anger—all of it.  If we don’t do this, our soul gets infected with bitterness.  It was painful and was always tear-filled, but the Holy Spirit would always be right there to soothe me with a measurable, tangible sense of his loving presence.  I knew those moments, as painful as they were, were healing.

“If your heart is broken, you’ll find God right there; if you’re kicked in the gut, he’ll help you catch your breath. Disciples so often get into trouble; still, God is there every time.”  (Psalm 34:18, 19 MSG)

We can’t afford to absorb the pain into our identity, saying to ourselves that it will always be this way.  We are not designed to live with pain all the time. Don’t resign yourself to it for the rest of your life. We get hurt, but we don’t have to stay hurt. Healing is available to us all in Jesus.

2. Don’t ignore the questions or the anger.

I tried for a while to make sense of sheer nonsense.  There was no discernible divine purpose behind Rich’s death.  It just happened.  But because we all want a why so that we can assign blame somewhere, in my case, it usually wound up on Rich himself.  He made the choice to drive all night, despite being advised differently.  I couldn’t get away from the nagging irrational thought that maybe he had a choice in the matter about his death, that somehow, God gave him a choice in that moment and he chose to go to heaven instead of stay with me.  I felt abandoned, left with his responsibilities.

It took me a while to be able to express what I was feeling into any kind of coherent thought, but this was an important step for me.  I had to choose to forgive Rich.  Several times.  I wrote him letters telling him how mad I was.  I had to say out loud into the air multiple times, feeling super foolish, “I forgive you.”  Sometimes I had to forgive God.  Sometimes I had to forgive myself for not demanding that we wait until morning to drive home, or for not holding his hand as he died.  To be honest, I had to forgive myself the most times, because that last one really cut me up.  Even discovering that he died as soon as he landed headfirst on that asphalt road didn’t help, because the truth is I just wasn’t brave enough to face whatever was happening on that road.

Allow God to expose the painful places; don’t hide them.

If we don’t let go of our anger through forgiveness, it turns to bitterness.  Bitterness poisons our healing.  Keloid scars aren’t cute.  They are wounds that haven’t healed just right.  Raw skin has covered over the injury, but it’s built up thick scar tissue.  They are big, red, puffy, raised, sensitive scars.  Bitterness produces keloid scars on our soul that are sensitive to being touched, always reminding us about what happened to us.  If we allow them to stay, they are repelling.  We become hostile, angry, prickly people, and we wind up alone.

 We have all met people who get stuck in bitterness.  There are two types of them—protestors, who angrily lash out at anyone who tries to help, and victims, who feel entitled by their loss. They leech onto people physically and emotionally, flashing their pain like a credit card.  Both types will wear you out after a while.

Too often, our flesh wants to run away from the presence of God when we are locked up with soul scars, when what is required for healing is the opposite.  If you have gotten to that point, it takes the oil of the Holy Spirit rubbed into our soul repeatedly to soften those scars back down.  “When I was upset and beside myself, you calmed me down and cheered me up.” (Psalm 94:12-19 MSG)  In these Holy Spirit sessions, we have to let ourselves get soft before him.  We get vulnerable and honest with ourselves and with Jesus.  His presence is always healing.  If we ask him to help carry our pain, he will.  He went to the cross so that he could.

Psalm 40: 1-3  “I waited and waited and waited for God.  At last he looked; finally he listened.  He lifted me out of the ditch, pulled me from the deep mud.   He stood me up on a solid rock to make sure I wouldn’t slip.  He taught me how to sing the latest God-song, a praise-song to our God.”

3. Let a wise leader take the steering wheel for a while.

When we are hurting, especially us girls run right toward the relationships that make us feel the most valuable and the least alone.  These relationships don’t always bring the best out of us.  All our good decision-making ability goes out the window in the face of our need.  This often means we get involved with people who aren’t God’s best for us, which result in guilty feelings.  We go from feeling bad to worse when guilt adds to our pain.  The pressure of pain brings the real me to the surface, and that’s not a pleasant mirror.  I dealt with both the pain of my loss and the pain of being disappointed in myself because as much as I wanted to, I frequently didn’t make the right choice.  I’m so grateful that God does not stand with his finger pointed in judgment.

I have several different pastor friends who have had nasty religious people tell them that the reason their child got terribly ill or they faced a major crisis was because of sin in their life, and they were getting what they deserved—the judgment of God.  Shut those people out of your life; they don’t know what the heck they are talking about.  Did we do something to deserve this?  In the search for answers, we may feel like because of past mistakes, maybe we are getting what we deserved.  When you feel that way, you tend to hang back, feeling undeserving of God’s help.  The thing is, God doesn’t look at our pain that way.  The gospels tell us repeatedly that Jesus looked at hurting people and the first thing he felt was compassion.  If we will bring our failure to him, he gently scoops away the sin, the issues, and the attitudes. Jesus holds us close with forgiveness, and carries us higher.  “God is sheer mercy and grace. He doesn’t treat us as our sins deserve, nor pay us back in full for our wrongs.”  (Psalm 103:8-12)  

When you’re trying to figure out whom to process with, please, don’t run away from church, run toward it.  Don’t disconnect from real kingdom relationships.  Especially as leaders, we tend to feel like we need to have it all together to serve in church, but it’s just not true!  We feel this internal pressure to be strong around both the people we are leading and the people we are following, so we often isolate ourselves when we are hurting. It’s one of the biggest lies the devil spreads.  God designed us to be a part of a community.  He looked at Adam alone and said, “It’s not good!”

We need help to process our thoughts and feelings correctly.  Usually we need to talk to a counselor or our pastor to get our thinking right.  I was not healthy enough to make good decisions on my own.  God put my pastor in my life specifically for that season.  Amazingly, she had lost her first husband to cancer at the exact same age I did, years before!  He will put wisdom in our path if we will open our eyes to see it and access it.  In that season, I invited her input in my world about pretty much every area of my life.  I needed someone healthy taking the wheel for me for a while, just like I would if I was sick in the hospital and needed my family to take care of things for me.  For deep traumas that have wounded us for many years, we can’t allow our pride or insecurity to keep us from getting professional counseling.  Let’s just get the help we need!

4.  Find new purpose in God’s house.

With Rich gone, so much of my life plan was suddenly down the toilet.  Up to that point, I was really more of a support to Rich’s ministry than anything on my own.  Without him, I had to figure out who I was going to be and what I was going to do.

Ministry probably saved me, really.  Somewhere around six thousand people attended Rich’s funeral and wake.  For hours, I watched thousands of hurting people walk past his casket.  There was no way I could claim some kind of exclusive stake to grieving Rich.  I was clearly not unique in my loss.  Seeing those people every week for the months that followed kept my gaze up.  It would have been so easy to give into the navel-gazing and bury myself in pain for a few years, but I felt such a sense of responsibility.  These were my kids too, and they were hurting, so I did the best that I could to help them.

I think that one of God’s favorite roles is to ride in on a white horse as our knight in shining armor, the Savior, there to save the day.  Jesus loves us so much that he gives us the chance to get in on that feeling.  He lets us taste that joy when he uses us to help someone else—an extension of his body, part of the church.  Seeing everyone else’s challenges helps us understand that we aren’t alone in our suffering.

God didn’t restore to Job all he had lost until he prayed for his friends.  “After Job had interceded for his friends, God restored his fortune–and then doubled it!” (Job 42:10)  I believe something happens on the inside of us when we do something to ease someone else’s suffering.  A little bit of our own pain recedes, and God puts healing in its place.

When we are looking for purpose, we will find it in the house of God.  Pain does not disqualify us from the ability to serve someone else’s need.

5.  Face your fears about the future.

For a long time, I refused to make any life or ministry plans.  It felt too risky, and I just didn’t have any heart for dreaming.  Life didn’t appear to be full of possibilities.  All I could do was keep going with what I was already doing.  The future was one big scary blank.

There is a landfill next to the neighborhood I used to live in.  Several years ago, they closed it and covered it over with a layer of plastic and dirt.  Eventually, they built a lovely city park over the top of that dump.  You wouldn’t know today that it is a landfill except for the pipe vents that pop up out of the ground in a few places.

I used to enjoy a great running route that would take me about four miles around the neighborhood and would finish up on a track through this park before getting back home.  The last leg of the run took me right past the dump vents, down into a little depression between the man-made hill and the road.  During the summer, at least once a week, they open those vents to let off the funk that has built up underground as everything decomposes. When the vents were open, the last half-mile home was just awful.  The gasses would collect down in that little hollow, and choke me with their foulness as I tried to run past.  I felt like I wasn’t getting enough oxygen.  My tired body would tell me to slow down or stop, but slowing down just meant the noxious vapors would overwhelm me.  My only real option was to speed up to get past this little valley and be home.

“Even when the way goes through Death Valley, I’m not afraid when you walk at my side.”  (Psalm 23:4)

When we go through these horrible valleys, the only way out is to keep going!  Don’t slow down; don’t stop, just keeping moving forward.  You will get through this season, and it will hurt less and less.  What a beautiful promise, that we are not alone, even when we feel alone!  “Oh, blessed be God! He didn’t go off and leave us. He didn’t abandon us defenseless, helpless as a rabbit in a pack of snarling dogs.” (Psalm 124:6 MSG)

God intends good for us, whether we see it today or not.  When I look backward, I see his hand on my life so clearly.  We can trust that his plan will bring us to a good place.  When I was trying to wrap my mind around a new future, I thought about this verse frequently.  “For I know the plans I have for you says the Lord, plans for peace and not for evil.  Plans to give you a hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11)  When I couldn’t dream for myself, God dreamed for me.  He had a better plan for me than I could conceive of.

How do we access it?  Decide to trust God every day and dream again.  “Be brave.  Be strong.  Don’t give up.  Expect God to get here soon.”  (Psalm 31:24)  Surrender to his process.  Let his healing love cover over the injustice of what happened to you.  His love is bigger than what shouldn’t have happened.  Decide to believe that he can restore what was lost.  “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.”  (Romans 8:28 NKJV)

Four years after Rich died, God worked through my dear friend and pastor, Kent Munsey, to set me up on a date with John Morgan.  That night changed my life. John is warm and affectionate, absolutely hilarious, and very strong. He made my life so much fun! God knew he was exactly what I would need! We got married a few months later.  I didn’t see it coming, and I couldn’t have planned it, but God’s plan for us was better than I could have dreamed on my own.  God healed my heart and replaced pain with a whole lot of joy.  He’s just that good!  I got three gorgeous stepdaughters in the bargain, all of them amazing, loving girls.  I am living proof that “God places the lonely in families.” (Psalm 68:6 NLT)

For us who lead in church, it’s not how well we can put together a church service, or how well we can deliver our gift that matters most.  What people remember isn’t likely to be the points of the messages we preach. They will remember the way that we live, and the way that we navigated the hardest moments of our lives.  People need to know how to face and get past their difficulties, and they need hope that it’s possible to get to the other side and be whole. Let’s not hesitate to show them the path.  “Don’t be impressed with charisma; look for character. Who preachers are is the main thing, not what they say.” (Matthew 7:16-18 MSG)

John&Anna2010
John and I a few years back