I wrote a trio of articles for Christianity Today’s Gifted For Leadership. This is part of my story about my journey following my husband Rich’s death.
Read the three articles in the series here:
THE STRESS OF ANTICIPATION
Thanksgiving is this week—the official kick-off to the Christmas season here in the US! When I was a kid, my mom made an advent calendar that we still have. Each day of December has a little pocket with a card inside that tells part of the Christmas story, and a small treat or a toy of some sort that goes with the story. My brother and sister and I all took turns getting whatever was in that day on the calendar and reading the card out to the family. I remember reading those cards and feeling like Christmas was taking absolutely forever to come. I ached for Christmas vacation and opening presents.
Christmas Eve was the best/worst. We would be going bananas with excitement. My father had a hard and fast rule that no presents got opened until Christmas morning. My poor little brother about came unglued trying to convince my father to let him open just one on Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve I stayed awake almost all night with my sister. We knocked on my parents’ door around four in the morning trying to convince them that Santa had already come, but the rule was that the sun had to be up. Gahh! So close!
Anticipation cuts both ways. The joy of what is coming gets me so excited, but it also frustrates me. I want it now! As funny as it is to remember how worked up about toys I used to get, in many ways not much has changed. I started dreaming as a teenager, and many of those dreams still have not been realized. I have so many major things left on my bucket list. Frustration can turn into discouragement. “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.” (Proverbs 13:12 NKJV) I want it now!! Delayed gratification is overrated for character building.
THE GRASS IS GREENER
I probably have overly high expectations for myself, and I hate disappointing me. Throughout my life, I have struggled with being content with my present location on my journey. Maybe I’m just competitive, but I always want to be further along. This can twist me into major mental knots late at night unless I intentionally set down that tangle of thoughts and think about something totally different. When I was in my twenties, I had most of my life ahead of me and plenty of time for course corrections. Now, as I enter my late thirties, I am plagued with “the clock is ticking” thoughts. (I know–I’m still young. But I’m not as young as I was.)
Rational Anna tells me don’t freak out, that now is only temporary and that I’m still journeying forward, but Anxious Anna immediately dismisses this as irrelevant because right now, I want to be further ahead. I feel this compulsion to be doing what I want to do, not preparing for it. Sometimes it feels like my life is an eternal preparation for what is coming.
If I don’t put Anxious Anna in check, I get myopically consumed with pushing the next thing forward. Everything on the perimeter gets neglected. It’s so funny how it works for us humans. When we are at home, we chafe to get out and travel and find adventure. When we are on the road, we can’t wait to get home. The grass is always greener and so forth.
The good side of this internal push is that hopefully I will leave the planet a little better than I came into it. The ideal place to be is disciplined, pushing for a great future, yet at perfect peace with right now. Things will come to disrupt that peace (like the cabbie who sideswiped my car last night, grrr), but I am best positioned for making good choices for my family, and for my ministry and career when I live at peace in my heart.
SELAH: PAUSE AND REMEMBER
Every so often, I have to take a Selah moment to pause and remember. Not rushing over my thoughts on the way to another item on the to-do list. This is not an ordinary moment, but a quiet reflection, to pause and think about specific examples of his faithfulness to me. For me, they are glaringly obvious; I don’t have to think long. I remember the moments when God was gracious to me, giving me what I didn’t deserve. I remember the doors of opportunity that he opened for me. I remember the blessing of family and friends to love and who love me. I remember the financial freedom I have lived in most of my life. I remember how he made a little place for me in his plan of redemption.
It’s a little overwhelming when I identify it. It makes me incredibly grateful. Gratitude makes space for trust. No matter what the future holds, I trust in Jesus. No matter what the present pressures, I trust in Jesus. He knows the way I take, and he guides my steps as I submit myself to him. Then I allow appreciate to rise in my heart. As appreciate rises, so does my love for him and my readiness to trust.
These Psalms chart the course for my heart in those quiet moments.
“So thank God for his marvelous love, for his miracle mercy to the children he loves.” (Psalm 107:9 MSG)
“I’m thanking you, God, from a full heart, I’m writing the book on your wonders. I’m whistling, laughing, and jumping for joy; I’m singing your song, High God.” (Psalm 9:1-2 MSG)
“You did it: you changed wild lament into whirling dance; You ripped off my black mourning band and decked me with wildflowers. I’m about to burst with song; I can’t keep quiet about you. God, my God, I can’t thank you enough.” (Psalm 30:11-12 MSG)
“Thank God! He deserves your thanks. His love never quits. Thank the God of all gods, His love never quits. Thank the Lord of all lords. His love never quits.” (Psalm 136:1-3 MSG)
When my heart surges its wave of wild and free song of thanksgiving and love and joy, peace rides in with the surf that follows. Suddenly, what seemed so emotionally urgent and unsatisfactory a few moments ago fades as I find contentment in this moment, right now.
I pray that this Thanksgiving, you know the perfect peace that comes from this kind of gratitude.
“I’m leaving you well and whole. That’s my parting gift to you. Peace.”–Jesus (John 14:27 MSG)
P.S. The poem may be a random addition, but it seemed to fit.
PAUSED ON THE RIDGE
How long will I wait here paused on this ridge?
Frozen seconds stretch out just to vanish ahead
Shells so fine and fragile imprison the hollow inside
Paper-thin brittle ice shaping present form yet hiding future function
The days turn over years and I gaze on still
Youth’s fire still ablaze in my heart
Time’s weight drags at my skin
But all still untouched yet within
I stand poised and ready for something
A bridge perhaps from here to there
Maybe that the fog that frames my stillness
Might dissipate into bright beams of clarity
Why do I hesitate?
What freezes my feet?
Today I gaze on, ever dreaming
Locked here, paused on the hill I have climbed.
Behind me, the hard-fought slopes I’ve taken
My feet now secure on the high place
The valley yawns below dusky and green, mysterious and obscured
In the distance—bare granite peaks yet to be climbed.
Have you ever known someone who seemed to have an unfair advantage in ministry or life? It seems like every door swings wide open with opportunity and success for them. I have many friends like this, but one in particular that I envied. She is a long-time friend from high school. She seemed to get handed every ministry opportunity that I wanted, and as much as I loved her, sometimes I really struggled to like her!
We need successful and influential friends. They challenge us and provoke our growth. As much as it’s good for us to have friends who are farther along than we are, sometimes they make you want to beat your head against the wall. When you are fighting for every step forward and watch them sail past effortlessly, it can make your teeth clench involuntarily. Sometimes I have been glad and excited for friends’ successes, but other times, not so much. It’s not that I resented their advantages, but I wished for some of the favor they enjoy.
God loves everyone equally, but the Bible talks about certain people that God’s hand was on. These people had an extra measure of help toward success when God’s hand was on them. The hand of God can be brutal towards his enemies, but when it’s on you—you have the “it” factor, a guaranteed advantage.
John the Baptist was a special child. People could see something different about him and expected more from his life. “Everyone who heard about it reflected on these events and asked, ‘What will this child turn out to be?’ For the hand of the Lord was surely upon him in a special way.” (Luke 1:66 NLT) John became one of the most influential men of his time.
Ezra had supernatural favor with the king because the hand of the Lord was on him. “This Ezra was a scribe… the king gave him everything he asked for, because the gracious hand of the Lord his God was on him.” (Ezra 7:6 NLT) God’s hand made Ezra a confident leader. “I felt encouraged because the gracious hand of the Lord my God was on me.” (Ezra 7:28 NLT)
When God’s hand rested on Elisha, he could hear God’s voice clearly and prophesy. “While the harpist was playing, the hand of the Lord came on Elisha and he said, ‘This is what the Lord says:’” (2 Kings 3:15-16 NIV)
Clearly the hand of the Lord can give a tremendous advantage. It destines you for greatness, and gives you confidence in front of powerful people. It helps you hear God clearly and see where you are going. So how do you get his attention? Is it as simple as asking him to put his hand on you?
When I was a kid, my parents applied their hands to me frequently. A hand on my shoulder meant settle down, slow down. When dad held my hand, he restricted me. I could only move when he moved. His hand on my head was affectionate, and his hand on my backside was discipline. Most of the time, his hand was coaching my behavior, but I knew I had his attention.
Our willingness to let God take the lead makes all the difference. It’s easy to say that we want him to lead, but not as easy to actually follow. When Jesus uses leaders in our lives to correct our course, how responsive are we? If we are needed to serve in areas that we aren’t naturally interested in or passionate about, how hard do we work at it? How available are we for what he asks us to do? Does it need to fit into the hours agreed on in our staff contract, or the hours we committed to serve?
God’s favor is connected closely to God’s coaching. Coaching narrows the options for behavior, just like a hand on our shoulder. In order to enjoy the advantages of God’s favor, we have to be willing to allow him to guide our behavior and our choices.
John the Baptist was led into the desert to eat bugs. Ezra went into hostile territory to rebuild a ruined city. Elisha had to raise a boy from the dead. Evidently, God’s favor doesn’t necessarily result in a life of luxury and ease. But it does mean that what we do will have significant impact.
I have this guarantee: when God has my full attention, he pays close attention to me. The more willing and responsive we are, the more God’s hand can rest on us. “The Lord confides in those who fear him” (Psalm 25:14 NIV) “Who then are those who fear the Lord? He will instruct them in the ways that should choose.” (Psalm 25:12 NIV)
What does it mean to fear the Lord? This word denotes respect, honor, and reverence, as well as raw fear. It’s the awareness that God cannot be managed, manipulated, or molded into what we prefer. He is supremely powerful, and can only be served, not bargained with. Living our lives with that awareness keeps deference for him in all our choices. “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” (Proverbs 31:30 NIV) It’s just a smart decision. This kind of fear produces great confidence. When God’s hand is on me, I get access to all the resources he has.
Proverbs describes a woman who had the “it” factor. She is incredibly confident because she knows God is with her, coaching her and backing her up. “She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come. She speaks with wisdom and faithful instruction in on her tongue.” (Proverbs 31:25 NIV) For a leader, it doesn’t get much better than that! I’m praying for this kind of favor to cover you, and the hand of God on your shoulder today.
Have you ever wished you were braver? Maybe you saw an outfit or haircut you liked and wished you had the courage to pull it off? Or have you ever wished you had the guts to talk to the guy you liked without imploding? Have you ever wished you were braver when it comes to public speaking.
I have never had a loud, big personality. As a kid, I was laid back, a soft talker. It’s not that I was shy, but just never liked to interrupt or talk over someone else. I was definitely not particularly brave or courageous about putting myself out there. My husband wishes I were still more like that, because he hates it when I interrupt him. I have, however, grown up into a more forceful, strongly opinionated, yet often reserved, contemplative person. As I am still relatively quiet, it often surprises people that I have spent most of my career up in front of people. It’s not usually the personality type one associates with the stage.
My parents got me music lessons when I was very young. I was just focused (or obedient) enough to keep with it, and enjoyed it enough to keep me interested. Average talent combined with lots of practice hours granted me some ability, and eventually the worship leader recruited to play in our church. This was no cakewalk for me. As a pre-teen, playing with the adult band terrified me to the point that I used to turn my amp so far down I couldn’t even hear myself, just to make sure no one else could! When I went from playing to singing in church, the nerves only got worse. My heart would somehow suddenly be up in my nose, choking me.
In high school, my buddies and I started a band that we lovingly dubbed, Curious George. Sadly, Curious George had just one performance before folding. We played for our youth ministry, and this was the first time I had ever sung a legit solo to a packed house. I got out on stage and heard my own voice coming out of the speaker in front of me and was completely thrown. It was totally disorienting for me because it didn’t sound like the me in my head. We were playing a Cranberries cover, and my face was probably looking pretty much like a Cranberry too.
I felt like God was calling me to ministry. In those days, female preachers weren’t really celebrated, barely tolerated. Twenty years ago, being a pastor’s wife, a secretary, or a worship leader was the most typical female ministry role. With these options available, I decided that I was going to major in music in college and become a church music pastor, in spite of my nervousness. This decision shifted something in me. Before I felt that call, I got normal performance jitters, but afterward, it turned into something more like terror of failure. I really wanted to be useful to God. I felt inadequate frequently, and scared that I would not be good enough. As a teenager, it didn’t help when well-meaning pastors in my life gently encouraged me to pursue something else. I was just stubborn enough to keep trying.
Because God is faithful to me, he made room for me when I wasn’t looking for it. I had settled into a behind-the-scenes role as a youth pastor’s wife and was happy there when my pastors pulled that comfortable rug out from under me. They asked me to lead the worship ministry. I was floored. To begin with, I was younger by several decades than most of the amazing singers and musicians I was being asked to lead. Many of them sang or played professionally. To top it off, these were church services of a couple thousand people. I struggled to say yes to that opportunity. I had to ignore the churning in the pit of my stomach, swallow hard, and try to find my brave face. I knew God was asking me to be obedient, but it was the scariest thing I’d ever done.
People aren’t born with courage. It’s not a personality trait, it’s a heart-wrenching choice. Courage is closely related to faith. I find courage when I quiet all the good reasons in my head not to do something and let my heart lead instead, propelled forward by the hope for something greater. Sometimes courage is letting go of our common sense and the internal security measures we all have. We can become the heroes of our own story if we decide to face down what intimidates us.
My daughter, Sharayah, loved the Divergent series, so I downloaded it for a series of long flights I took recently. It’s an entertaining and easy read, with the added bonus of being thought provoking—good vacation novels. One of the books’ major themes is bravery in the little things. The author, Veronica Roth, chose the word “dauntless” to describe her lead characters, which means bold, unintimidated, daring, brave, or courageous. Her story illustrates how courage can take many forms. You don’t have do extreme acts like walking barefoot over hot coals to be brave. Courage is sometimes the strongest in small, every day acts.
It takes courage to commit, to trust, to hope, especially when you have experienced rejection before. The older we get and the more life we have seen, the more courage that those risks require. Bravery isn’t the absence of fear, but acting in spite of your fear. Courage begins with the first step forward.
How can you become the hero of your own story?
1. Be brave in the little things first.
Financial struggles can be one of the most daunting challenges we face. Because it feels so overwhelming, it’s easy for us to stick our head in the sand and avoid dealing with it. Facing this can be one of those small acts of extreme courage. Start by being brave enough to open the bill you know you can’t pay. That little act of opening an envelope may be the bravest thing you can do. That first step gets you on your way.
You can either try to ignore failure, be overwhelmed by it, or try to tackle it. If you don’t have the courage to tackle the whole thing, try another small but brave step first: Ask for help. Be brave enough to eyeball the area of failure you have fought for years and put up your fists again. If you can be brave enough to be free of secrets, you can get free of just about anything.
For the most part, worship teams are cover bands. We listen to great songs and then play them for our church. If it’s a popular song, people want it to sound like the recording. When you are covering a song it’s not that hard to duplicate guitar tone, keyboard sounds, or beats nearly perfectly. What you can’t replicate is the voice. Your singer will never sound like the guy on the record! Voiceprints are absolutely unique. Nobody can sound exactly like anyone else.
The same thing applies to our communication. You won’t ever preach just like Chris Caine or Joyce Meyer, because Jesus never meant for you to sound like anyone else. He gave you a unique voice because he gave you something to say that no one else can! Finding your voice is perhaps more about having courage than anything else. Be brave enough to believe that you have something valuable to say! Ask God to lead you, and speak up when you feel strongly about something.
It takes a little bit of courage to be okay with being different. The best version of me isn’t when I look and act just like the people I respect, but when I get comfortable in my own skin. The more comfortable we are with who God designed us to be, the easier it is to access the unique gifts God gives us. You aren’t meant to blend in, but to stand out!
We aren’t just out here naked on our own, hoping it’s adequate. God told Moses, “See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills.” (Exodus 31:2-3) God chose Bezalel, and he gave him exactly what was needed to do the job God called him to do. The Holy Spirit makes us more than we are!
After Moses led Israel out of captivity in Egypt, in Exodus 32, they paused at Mount Sinai to hear from God about the next step. While Moses was up on the mountain talking to God, everyone else got tired of waiting. They pooled their valuables and made a statue of a calf and worshipped it as their god. For a long time, I read this story and felt a little superior. How could they be so dumb after God rescued them? The truth is, unfortunately, that I’m really not that different. When I feel like God is taking a little too long, I can be pretty quick to transfer my trust from Jesus to what I can make happen with my own skills and resources. We all can be tempted to make things happen on our own, just like Israel did.
The first step toward faith in challenging seasons is courage. God loves and rewards faith. We can access that favor by daring to believe God when things aren’t looking the way we want. That kind of bravery is a true act of courage.
I grew up in a remarkably courageous family. Sometimes I think about it and am amazed at the brave choices they have made. My father left his well-paying and prestigious career at IBM, and at over fifty years old, moved across the country to become a pastor. At twenty-one years old, my sister left America, all her family and friends, and moved to a third-world country to be obedient to the call of God on her life. My brother moved to China to marry a girl he fell in love with online. My mother got her doctorate at fifty-five years old and started a brand new career. I have enormous respect for these kinds of risky, dream-chasing, courage choices!
I recently got to chat with Taya Smith. She told me her story, about how she grew up in a tiny town in New South Wales, Australia, and moved to Sydney after high school. She got involved at Hillsong Church in the youth ministry leadership team. She had a dream to sing, and decided to audition for the Voice. She made it to the finals, and the producers told her that she was about to be offered a record deal. That same week, the Hillsong music producer asked her to come in and lay some background vocals for the new United album. She hadn’t been involved in music at Hillsong, but said yes anyway. When she arrived, they asked her to go ahead and record the song, “Oceans.” That very next weekend, she was leading worship for one of the campuses. The following week, Hillsong hired her as one of their worship leaders, and the rest is history. She had no idea when she left her hometown that this would be her journey! In just one wild, crazy week, God put her on the road to his purpose for her life. What if she had never left that little town?
God must really like something about journeys of faith. God asked Abraham to take one of these make-no-logical-sense journeys. When Abraham was obedient, it literally changed history. We can’t see the end result of these risky moves, but God does. That kind of bravery starts by asking yourself the question, what matters so much that it’s worth letting go of what is safe for the chance it might succeed? Dare to dream, and see what God does!
“Because of your shameless audacity, he will surely get up and give you as much as you need. So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” (Luke 11:8b, 9 NIV)
Pastor’s wives in particular seem to be a magnet for betrayal. I have met many who have mostly closed their emotional doors. They trust their family and maybe a few key friends, but most of the rest of the world gets held out at arms length. I suspect that this is true for many other women too. Only a brave woman will choose to trust people when she has been hurt in unimaginable ways many times before.
Risk assessment will always keep your world small when it comes to relationships. The famous passage in 1 Corinthians 13:7 says this about love. “It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” That divine kind of love never ceases to be a force pushing forward, even in the face of rejection, of neediness, or betrayal. Its God-like selfless quality is what makes it so special. That kind of love marries heart with action. It risks the pain for the hope of what is greater.
Can you be brave enough to keep pushing your circle out rather than shrinking it in? It just takes a little bit of courage to be like Jesus, and give someone another chance.
In our fight to get through this life, Jesus isn’t sitting at the judge’s table, no matter who else might be. He’s in our corner, behind us, coaching us and cheering us on! He promises to be our Advocate, the attorney on our side. He is the big brother who protects us from bullies. It’s way easier to pick a fight with our problems when we know who we have backing us up!
Christians have an extra net below them when they venture out bravely. God promises he will help us do the scary things in our hearts. “You’ll take delight in God, the Mighty One, and look to him joyfully, boldly. You’ll pray to him and he’ll listen; he’ll help you do what you’ve promised. You’ll decide what you want and it will happen; your life will be bathed in light. To those who feel low you’ll say, ‘Chin up! Be brave!’ and God will save them. Yes, even the guilty will escape, escape through God’s grace in your life.” (Job 22:26-30 MSG)
Peter made a famous and courageous walk on water a long time ago. He evidently thought the goal was worth the risk, and he trusted that Jesus had his back.
What courageous act God is asking from you?
Bethel Music recently released the song, “You Make Me Brave,” about stepping out onto the water. Hillsong United’s “Oceans” and “You Make Me Brave” make great soundtracks while you reflect on that question.
THE “WHAT IS MY CALLING QUIZ”
Several years ago, I was having the same conversation I’ve had countless times, this time with a young woman I was mentoring on my team. She was trying to navigate where she fit best. She is one of those talented people that can carry a variety of different roles with ease. She felt torn between different parts of the church. “Should I do youth ministry? Worship ministry? Missions? Women’s ministry?” She felt like she needed to choose one area, or that she should know the specific thing God was calling her to do. She felt a little lost. After several hours of conversation, I can remember her looking at me with frustrated envy in her eyes. “How are you so certain of what you are supposed to be doing?” she asked me.
Google is interesting for two reasons. Not only does Google always know the answers to the very random questions I pose every few hours, but Google also knows what every one else is wondering. When I enter the search string, “what is my calling,” Google suggest these similar search strings:
“what is my calling from God quiz”
“what is my true calling quiz”
“what is my calling quiz”
“what is my calling test”
“what is my calling in life”
I was a little startled by the idea that we are searching for an online quiz and its computer-generated answers to discover our calling. The kinds of quizzes that float around Facebook tend to be fairly inconsequential. I’m sucked in occasionally, but usually end of a little disgusted at myself for bothering. The results are less than earth shattering. Are we really so desperate for direction that we need a quiz to figure it out for us? I guess we are.
Many people have written great stuff about how to figure out your calling. Casey Treat wrote a great book called, Fulfilling Your God-Given Destiny. If we can find the sweet spot between what we are good at; what we are passionate about; what we have worked hard to master; and what smart people in our lives have identified as something we have potential in; then I think we will find something resembling a calling.
This article dives into this idea a little further if you have absolutely no idea what you are supposed to do with your life.
You may be saying, yes, Anna, I get all that. But what does God want me to do?
WHERE DOES GOD SPEAK TO YOU?
There are things that I do that feel so right. This is a hard idea to describe, but when I am doing them, I sense God in it. I think Jacob experienced something similar. “Then God said to Jacob, “Go up to Bethel and settle there, and build an altar there to God. Jacob called the place where God had talked with him Bethel.” (Genesis 35:1, 15 NIV)
Jacob had this place, Bethel, where he knew he could go and would always hear from God. God speaks to us in certain places. We feel a sense of rightness there that can’t be explained, except that they are our Bethel. Bethel literally means, “house of God.” Our Bethel will always be in a local church. As we connect ourselves to the community there, God speaks to us and puts his purpose in our hands.
God literally appeared to Jacob and spoke to him audibly, but that doesn’t happen to many people. People frequently have a hard time hearing God speak to them personally. Jesus is a master of subtlety. To hear him, you have to be paying very close attention. “For God does speak—now one way, now another—though no one perceives it.” (Job 33:14 NIV)
God speaks to us in a variety of ways. Sometimes God speaks through the wisdom of a trusted leader or pastor. Sometimes he speaks through dreams. Sometimes he speaks directly to the deepest part of our identity. It’s the part of us that doesn’t use words; it just knows. Some refer to that place as their “knower.” We have this unexplainable certainty that compels us. Most often he speaks to me through the Bible. I’ll be reading along, and all of a sudden, a scripture lights up on the page. In this deep inner place, a connection is made, and it’s like the lights have turned on around that scripture and how it applies to my life.
If we look for this prompting, we will find it. It can’t be found through a sense of urgency or ambition. It’s found in the quiet urgings of rightness.
IT’S MORE PARTNERSHIP THAN SLAVERY
Some people are afraid to discover God’s calling for their lives. Years ago, Scott Wesley Brown wrote a funny song you may remember, “Please Don’t Send Me to Africa.”
Please don’t send me to Africa
I don’t think I’ve got what it takes
I’m just a man. I’m not a Tarzan
I don’t like lions, gorillas or snakes
I’ll serve you here in suburbia
In my comfortable middle class life
But please don’t send me out into the bush
Where the natives are restless at night
This song, as silly as it is, exaggerates what many of us have worried about. It’s normal to worry a bit. If we let God into the driver’s seat, will he make us do things we really don’t want to do? Will we be obligated to do boring things with boring people?
When we give our lives to Christ, we are set free. We no longer have any obligations, no debts. Freedom in Christ is real freedom. It doesn’t mean that right and wrong go away. It just changes our status. We go from being slaves of sin to sons of God.
I discovered the PBS series, Downton Abbey, last year some time. It’s this fairly addicting show about British nobility during the turn of the century. The show follows the lives of a wealthy Earl’s family and their servants. There is a very firm line dividing the two classes of people. The servants have very structured lives, and do whatever the family asks them to do. The lord and ladies do pretty much whatever they feel like at any given time.
It’s a similar thing with Jesus. When we receive Christ, we are adopted into his family. Our family status has been elevated; we are now sons and daughters of God. We have the privileges and the authority that sons and daughters have. The closer we get to Jesus, the more freedom we have, not the less. God is not an autocrat, dictating our every move. God is a loving Father who empowers us to do great things for his house.
Moses had this kind of relationship with God. God asked Moses to do certain things: “Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘This is what the Lord says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me.’” Moses asked God to do certain things: “Moses cried out to the Lord about the frogs he had brought on Pharaoh. And the Lord did what Moses asked.” (Exodus 8:1, 12-13 NIV) It’s enough to make you wonder, who is in charge here? Moses received his mission from God, and then it became a partnership. Sometimes God was doing the directing, and sometimes Moses was doing the directing. Both God and Moses were working toward the same end: freedom for the Jewish people.
If we will pick up the mission that Jesus has given us, we have quite a bit of freedom in how that unfolds. All we have to do is ask.
YOU GET A SAY – JUST ASK!
“Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’ And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need. “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Luke 11:5-10 NIV)
Do you have something that you want to do? Try asking. Apparently Jesus responds to shameless audacity!
It’s worth noting that the request that got answered was not self-focused. This request was for help to be able to meet someone else’s need. As divine nobility, we have both great privilege and great responsibility. Jesus’s Great Commission was all about reaching out to the world around us. If our dreams have lots of “I want” in them, then maybe it’s time to broaden their scope a little.
DO WHAT YOU CAN RIGHT NOW WITH WHAT YOU HAVE
Some of us have some pretty definite ideas of what we want to do, but it seems so far off that it’s discouraging. What then? The sinful woman who anointed Jesus was in this state.
No one sets out in life to be known as “the sinful woman.” Her dreams had been long since trampled. I’m sure no one was more disappointed than she was by her own behavior and the results. There just wasn’t enough time to turn it around; she had lived a lifetime already. She was trapped by her own reputation, and she had no one to blame but herself.
Maybe she felt like leaving it all behind and joining the crowd that followed Jesus around but was afraid she would damage the Jesus’s reputation by her presence. Maybe she was too ashamed. Maybe she was too proud and worried about what the people who followed Jesus would say about her.
After some thought, she decided to give Jesus a moment, a memory. She took an expensive jar of perfume, and crashed a dinner party. She found Jesus at the table, and poured it on him there. It must have been a dramatic moment; an unforgettable moment. This is what Jesus said. “She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” (Mark 14: 8-9 NIV)
She did what she could do, right now, with what she had. For Jesus, that was more than enough. Our calling may have complicated dreams and future plans, but sometimes our calling is in a moment, in a single act. What can I do right now, with what I have in my hand? If we will just do that, we will gain the pleasure of our Father. So often we over-complicate things when God is calling us to the simple, faithful acts of serving his people. As we serve people, we serve Jesus. Let’s not overlook the power and significance in these small moments.
Questions to consider:
* What can I do with the time, talent, ability, and resource I have right now?
* What gives me a yes in my spirit when I get involved?
* Am I waiting for God to open a door when God is on the other side, waiting for me to knock?
I am klutzy. I trip over the tiniest variations in sidewalks, over cobblestones, up and down steps. Usually I can awkwardly recover before I go all the way down, but it’s still embarrassing. My sweet husband keeps count of the number of times I stumble when we are out together. I think I average 3-4 wobbles per outing. I never set out to trip. Usually when I do, it’s because I was distracted and not paying attention to my feet. I hit a hazard that I just didn’t see, and boom—down I go. It’s painful and humiliating.
Tripping is an accident that happens when I try to do too many things at once. My husband doesn’t get annoyed with me when I fall down. He doesn’t judge my ability to walk and shame me for falling. He laughs a little when I stumble, but he always grabs my arm to stabilize me. He gets concerned if I go all the way down. He doesn’t walk away; he helps me back up. I am, however, embarrassed and hoping no one else noticed.
Things are similar in our walk with Christ. I don’t believe that Christians set out to sin; it’s an accident. We trip over the place we didn’t see coming when we didn’t realize we were vulnerable. Sometimes we just stumble and sometimes we go down hard. Most of the time, these incidents are accidents, not a product of evil intentions. The fact that someone hides their sin and got caught, however, is not an indicator that they purposefully, secretly, set out to sin. It only means that they are embarrassed by it. It’s a normal, human response. This perspective should change how we deal with people. Instead of pushing people away when they fall, we reach out to stabilize and to support.
The Bible says that grace itself is a stumbling stone. When Jesus came, religious people didn’t see it coming. They were caught up in appearances and in following the rules to earn moral superiority. The free grace Jesus offered threw them for a loop. “The Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; 31 but the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal. 32 Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone. 33 As it is written: ‘See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall and the one who believes in him will never be put to shame.’” (Romans 9:30-33 NIV)
Jesus, grace embodied, is the ultimate stumbling stone. There are parts of Jesus that can be really hard to understand. There are things that God forgives that I have a very hard time forgiving. It trips me up and I don’t even realize I have stumbled over grace. Why would someone get a clean slate, free and forgiven, for major betrayals like adultery, or for swindling little old ladies? Does God forgive a pedophile? Does God forgive a murderer? Is grace big enough to cover these things? If Hitler repented on his deathbed and God decided to save him, my Jewish family would reject God because his grace is too inclusive. Muslims who follow Sharia law reject Christianity because of grace. It’s too loose, too free. Things that we hold on to, God lets go of. I’m happy for God’s grace to cover my junk, but sometimes grace looks like injustice when it covers someone else. Grace can be a stumbling stone.
We each carry the weight of our own failures. Most of us have secret places in our past, distant or recent, where we tripped and fell, but we keep them hidden because we are embarrassed by the errors. These things can make us feel under qualified to take our place serving or leading in the church. Do those things disqualify us from connecting to the church and sharing Jesus?
NAUGHTY NAUGHTY GIRLS
I noticed something truly interesting in the genealogy of Jesus. Matthew wrote his gospel to the Jews, to prove to them that Jesus was the promised Messiah. He rattled off the genealogy of Jesus at the beginning of his book because where Jesus came from mattered to Jewish people. There are some truly illustrious men in that list—superstars like Abraham, King David, and King Jehoshaphat. The ladies that got a mention, however, are decidedly less so. They are kind of a who’s who of the naughty girls of the Bible, starting with Tamar, the girl who pretended to be a prostitute so she could score a one-night stand with her father-in-law, Judah. She wanted her father-in-law to get her pregnant. Shocking! Then there is Rahab, the prostitute and treacherous turncoat, followed by Ruth, the shameless woman who snuck into a man’s camp in the dark and slept next to him to force him to marry her. These are Jesus’s great-grandmas. The virgin Mary has a lily white image, but even she was a bit of rebel if you think about it. She would have had a sketchy reputation, having gotten pregnant and giving birth before marrying Joseph. If Mary had been my daughter, I would have married her off as soon as possible and said as little as possible, hoping people didn’t add up the months. Mary must have wanted to make sure that everyone knew Jesus wasn’t Joseph’s son. That’s pretty edgy.
The Bible doesn’t explain why these are the women included in Jesus’s pedigree. There must have been other wives that lived good, tidy lives who didn’t get a mention. God must have included these girls in the recorded lineage of Jesus for a reason. Perhaps it is to tell us that he doesn’t pass over girls who have made mistakes; who have stumbled trying to navigate life. Even the girl with most checkered past can be a God-carrier. The scandal and the babies that resulted from those scandalous relationships resulted in the most gracious perfect gift to mankind. It makes no sense; it’s a stumbling stone, but our failures and our foibles don’t disqualify us from serving up Jesus to the world around us.
I know some of you may feel an obligation to challenge this. There are some pretty stern passages throughout 1 Corinthians about people who sin, and some strong requirements for the people who lead in the book of Timothy. Yes, those who lead are judged to a higher standard. Yes. But are those leaders any less entitled to the same grace we enjoy? Or is their need for grace a stumbling stone for you?
WHEN LEADERS FALL
I’ve watched a few Olympic races. Sometimes, the racer makes an error and falls. The sportscaster will always replay the big moment in slow motion. They show the misstep and the athlete going down, mouth open, arms and legs flailing. Racers nearby get tripped up in the churning limbs, and the massive train wreck results in a jumble of bodies and injuries on the ground.
This is what happens when Christian leaders stumble. Usually their error affects the people closest to them, and can cause real pain for the people closest to them. When they stumble, they cause other people to stumble. Untangling those train wrecks and nursing the injuries is not a small matter. Every fallen leader has to carry the responsibility for this. It’s the getting back up part that I am chewing on. Jesus gives grace freely to each one of us. It’s very clear that none of us are perfect yet, no matter what position we hold. Do those mistakes disqualify fallen leaders for future leadership? If we don’t actually get back up but stay committed to our funk, clearly it does.
In church, no one has any obligation to stay or to serve or to give. People can leave at any time and go find another church. People only follow us to the extent that they respect us. If your life is a visible mess, people will not follow you. Ergo, you are disqualified from leadership because you are leading no one, because no one will follow you. I wonder if the qualifications for leadership that Paul gave to Timothy have more to do with this practical reality than anything else. We all require the grace of Jesus to stand righteous—every one of us. Our own righteousness did not qualify us for leadership to begin with, so it can’t later either.
God made a point by including only flawed women in his lineage. I wonder if Tamar will be embarrassed when I meet her in heaven. Out of her whole life’s story, the one snapshot that got included was her scandalous baby-making endeavor. Her story makes me feel pretty good about my flubs being redeemable. Our journey of grace doesn’t have to be a private one. If we are willing, our grace journey can show others the way, providing a pathway people can follow.
People root for the underdog. People love a comeback story. People will follow a fallen leader that gets back up and learns from their mistakes. God’s grace covered their sin the minute they put it under the blood of Jesus. Will his grace be a stumbling stone for us, or a point of victory?
“I just don’t fit in anywhere. I feel alone most of the time, except with my husband. I really don’t have any friends; I don’t have time to hang out with people as friends. We don’t really talk to any other pastors.”
I have met quite a few pastors and leaders who shared with me how alone they feel most of the time. Honestly, this shocks me a little, because so many people are pastors and leaders in churches. It shouldn’t be this hard; the potential friend pool is pretty big. The body of Christ might be spread across the globe, but God designed us to be connected to each other. Too many are feeling a little friendless!
Friendship is definitely different from popularity. If we are honest with ourselves, most of us are interested in measuring our own popularity. It’s a habit we started as children, evaluating how many birthday parties we got invited to or who wanted us to sit at their lunch table. This measurement of popularity didn’t really end after Jr. High; it just morphed. Social media provides an easy measuring system today. I keep reasonably close tabs on all my numbers. Hopefully it’s not just me. There will always be people more popular than me or you. If popularity becomes a measure of our own value, or our ministry’s value, we have navigated ourselves into truly murky waters.
For some reason, we church leaders tend to overanalyze our own popularity. On one hand, it’s good. Lots of people following us should mean lots of people are following Jesus. (hopefully) On the other hand, it’s easy to slip into Jr. High mode and feel the same way about the number of social media followers we have as we did about the number of parties we got invited to in Jr. High. Our absorption with our own popularity is not so healthy.
I believe that a big reason that so many North American pastors feel lonely is that there has been too much emphasis on popularity and too little emphasis on friendship.
When a super cool leader is doing awesome things in their church, we want to be like them and get in their world. It’s a similar concept to American celebrity culture. We get consumed with the lives of popular pastors and leaders just like celebrities—how they live, what they wear, what they do for fun, how they cut their hair, what they do to grow their church. There is nothing wrong with this at all. It’s great to be inspired by people who are doing awesome things. We just need to be realistic—we aren’t friends with them. This is fanship, not friendship. Aligning with these amazing, wonderful leaders is not the same thing as friendship. It may be a door into a real relationship, but Facebook friends do not equal real friends. (For the very few of you who had not yet realized this.)
We all need friends. We find such life and strength in the God friendships of our lives. I’m definitely not always good at being a friend, but I am learning. I have learned by watching some people who are just really good at being a friend. I have certain friends, gifts from God, who love me—warts and all. They have a God-given grace for me—for my weirdness, for my awkwardness, for my weaknesses. These things don’t seem to offend them, but amuse them instead. It doesn’t matter how badly I’ve neglected them; they stay loyal to me. They have become part of my kingdom family, an extension of my natural family through an unwritten covenant.
The common denominator is that they are always far less concerned with what they are getting out of the relationship than they are with the well being of the person they care about. Healthy friendships are not based on “I scratch your back, you scratch mine.” That is a good business partnership, not friendship. Real friendships have that Christ-like quality in them where we give without keeping track of what we get back.
There is a Seinfeld episode where a “friend” of Jerry’s starts working out. After bulking up, he outgrows an expensive suit and offers it to Jerry. Jerry feels nervous to accept the extravagant gift and says so. The man thinks for a moment and says that if Jerry would just take him out to dinner, it will be even. As the episode progresses, the dinner turns into more than one dinner, and pretty soon, nothing Jerry does is enough to balance out the gift of this fancy suit. Jerry gets fed up, and finally the relationship breaks down because of this gift.
We aren’t born knowing how to do friendship well. Friendship is a learned skill that we have to cultivate. It doesn’t just happen because we like a person. I have to choose to be someone’s friend. I can’t just be their friend because they treat me well, or they call me their friend, or because they make me feel good. If I did, I would wind disappointed as soon as they let me down, and the relationship would be over. Friendship is a gift that we give to people. It’s pretty hard to turn down genuine friendship. It doesn’t ask for anything, just offers love and acceptance. It doesn’t require validation or time.
When our friendship depends on mutual benefit, we will always be looking for how to even the scales, and resentful when it looks like our friend is giving as much. “An unfriendly person pursues selfish ends.” Proverbs 18:1 NIV
Loyalty is one of the most under-rated qualities out there. A loyal friend, who believes in you and loves you when you dumb things and cheers with you when you win, that friend is priceless. Real friends see the real me and love me anyway. They laugh at you, and you laugh at yourself because you feel affection from them, not scorn. They don’t make you feel dumb or inferior. Most of these people in my life are old friends, who have stood the test of time. Those friends are just awesome. You can pick up where you left off with them, like no time has passed, even if you haven’t seen them for a few years.
I’m fully grown up now, I think. I don’t have as much social time as I did in my teens and twenties. When I do, my first instinct is to spend time with well-established friendships because I love them, and it’s a guaranteed easy and fun time. I really have to intentionally make room in my life for new friends now, where when I was younger, it came quite naturally. I don’t want my world to shrink in. I want it to get bigger, to have a generous heart. I want to add to my friends, not stagnate. For us to connect with new friends, it’s going to take some extra thought!
My goal is to make at least two new, real friends a year. I meet all kinds of people, so that’s no problem. I don’t just want new contacts or new acquaintances; I want to be a friend to more people. I tell myself this:
Choose to reach out to the people you like.
Don’t feel awkward about pursuing them.
Keep pursuing, and choose not to feel rejected by what looks like the brush-off.
It takes time for people to get to know you enough to love you, so be patient.
PRACTICE THE ART OF MAKING NEW FRIENDS
For us to make new friends requires that we take the initiative. I can’t sit around expecting people to suddenly spark an interest in me. I have to be a friend first before I will have a new friend. Here’s what I have been thinking about when it comes to making new friends.
1. Friends are interested in each other and what they are doing.
The people in my world best at relationships intentionally make time regularly to check in on people, even when they are not involved in their everyday life. I’m not great at this, but I’m working on it. These amazing people don’t get so consumed by themselves and their own schedules that they forget about the people they love. They make time to think about and pray for friends. The age of the selfie and numbering social media connections has made friendship very self-focused in general. True friendship is externally focused, not inward. Friends are interested and ask questions.
2. Friends don’t pull away, funky and awkward, when their friend’s star is rising. They don’t compete.
Friends promote each other because they are excited about each other’s wins. I’ve seen friendships that got weird when one of them experienced greater success. The other person just couldn’t seem to get their head around the inequality of their situations. Without realizing it, they had been racing the other person. When their friend won, the other got sour. Jealousy is the enemy of friendship. Sometimes we allow resentment of our friend’s blessing to rob the joy in the relationship. Unnecessary competition is not worth a precious friendship!
Friends challenge each other, but they don’t compete. The Klitchko brothers are two heavyweight Ukrainian boxers who were a big deal in the last ten years. (My husband is into boxing, so I have picked up a few things over the years.) They are probably the best two heavyweights out there, and both hold major belts, or at least they used to. (You fight over belts in boxing. I might be more into it if they fought over shoes, but whatever.) These two brothers decided years ago that they would never box each other. If they were any random two men, it would be a natural paring for a great fight. Because these two are brothers, they don’t fight each other. They refused to let anything divide them.
“Iron sharpens iron,” means that we can be challenged by our friends’ successes and become better. If we disengage from relationship because we feel weird suddenly, then we miss out on the sharpening.
3. Friends lean in during the tough times.
Friends lean in during crisis. Lean in, even when your friend is pulling away. When I feel embarrassed or hurt, I just want to want to crawl in a hole and disappear. It’s human nature. Sometimes people push friends away because something is going on in their world. Those are the times we need to apply some grace and patience and just keep reaching for them. Lean in and love them anyway. Real friends pray for each other, in the good times and in the bad.
My husband’s best friends have leaned in with real support during his hardest moments. One of them told him, “Some people are going to spank you, and sometimes you do need it. Some people will love you and be for you, no matter what. I choose to be that friend.” That’s the kind of friend I want to be! “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity.” Proverbs 17:17
4. Friends make time for fun
Friends have fun together. Fun creates memories, and memories connect us forever with shared history. I’m convinced that if adults will prioritize fun in their lives, they will experience more deep and meaningful relationships. Friends make time for each other. Life is more than the tyranny of the urgent and important. We need a little silly in our lives, and people to laugh with.
5. Friends don’t let anything divide them. They work through issues like family does.
Sometimes we make far too big a deal about accidental snubs. It amazes me how very small issues can sour an entire friendship permanently. We should be quick to let it go, yes, but be sure you actually can let it go and aren’t just burying it. If you can’t let it go, have a chat about it! It’s worth the pain of that conversation to save a friendship. Little issues have a way of resurrecting just when you thought you let it all go. You can be honest, without being hurtful. Real friends speak the truth in love. “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiples kisses.” Proverbs 27:6
6. Friends are loyal, even when they aren’t sure their loyalty is reciprocated.
Loyalty means you don’t giggle at someone else’s misfortune, or tell anyone when your friend’s life is going badly. Loyalty means that you check in with people, even when they are sucking your energy away with their problems. Friends don’t talk about each other in a negative way, and don’t listen to someone else spill about them. Friends come to terms with each other’s weaknesses without judgment.
7. Friends relax together.
You have nothing to prove. You don’t have to be perfect to be respected, and you don’t have to have it all together to be loved.
8. Friends are sisters of the heart.
“One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” Proverbs 19:24
My relationship with my sister is one of my deepest and oldest friendships. It amazes me how when she hurts, I seem to feel it intensely. It’s not my hurt; it’s hers, but I feel it just like I feel my own. We have a heart connection. When she is joyful, I feel what she feels. I am connected to her wellbeing, invested in her happiness. Sisters of the heart carry the weight together. What happens to her affects me, for good or bad. I’m invested in her life, not disconnected or impartial.
I think this is what real friendship is at it’s core: to be so connected that we are unable stand by and watch our friends hurt, or be okay with their loneliness or their need. We feel pride in their success, and excited by their joy. We are invested in who they are. I believe this kind of relationship is what God designed us for.
LAY OFF THE LADIES
I still cringe a little bit inside, remembering. I was in my mid-twenties and single again. I’d dropped a few pounds, having lost my appetite for a while after my husband died. I went into my office and found a note that had been slipped under the door. As I opened it and began to understand its contents, I could feel a flush creep up my neck. It was from one of the young ladies in the church. She had written to express her disapproval of a pair of pants I’d worn to church recently. I knew the ones she was talking about. They were new, and I really liked them. They were a touch on the small side, but it was the last pair in the store. They were sort of the pants version of a mermaid dress—black, silky fabric, tight on the top, then flaring out just above the knees down to the floor. This girl thought these pants were too tight, and apparently, when I sat down, the top of my panties had been visible in the back. She informed me that as a pastor, I really should set a better example. I was horrified and deeply embarrassed. I had never intended to look seductive. I just liked the pants, but apparently my motives and my qualifications to be a pastor were somehow in question because of my choice. Needless to say, the pants bit the dust.
Over the years, I’ve chatted with a number of girls serving in church who have been rebuked so harshly over their clothes they almost quit. I have a beautiful young friend in her early twenties. She and her husband are youth pastors with an adorable little boy, and she is also her pastor’s daughter. I was surprised when she told me that for a while she considered not being in ministry at all. After some probing, I discovered that in her first year of ministry, she had endured three hours of harsh rebuking in a meeting with six of the women of her church. She is one of the most gentle, sweet and gracious people you will ever meet. She told me that she essentially was called a slut for wearing leggings on stage and showing the shape of her backside in a youth meeting. She was so embarrassed and hurt by the attack on her motives and the attack on her credibility that she almost called it quits before she even got started. I have beautiful friends in ministry who get fierce criticism for the way they look on their social media profiles. These women get picked on relentlessly, especially if they posted any modeling photos.
No one criticizes men about what they wear. I’ve never heard any man get seriously rebuked for immodesty, and some of the pants they wear these days are tighter than their wife’s. Weirdly enough, in every story I’ve heard, a woman did the rebuking. Men tend to get the blame for all this—we can’t cause our brothers to stumble—but it’s really the ladies that get most bothered by this, not men. The truth is that men don’t tend to even notice what we are wearing. They look at and admire a beautiful woman, regardless of what she wears. My husband doesn’t know the difference between a skirt and a dress any more than he knows the difference between leggings and skinny pants. It does not register in his brain what I’m wearing at all unless I call his attention to it to ask his opinion. Then he just gets really confused, stalls, and tries to leave the room as soon as he can safely escape. He has no idea!
Let’s call this for what it really is—a mean girls attack. This kind of criticism is rooted in a religious spirit and in jealousy. Religion starts wars—not helpful. God hasn’t called anyone to be the official humbler of other people. If you don’t feel good about yourself, making someone else feel small isn’t going to help anyone feel better. You just wind up feeling worse because now you feel like a jerk too. Girls, let’s just decide to be bigger than this kind of meanness. Chill out, and be kind to our pretty girls. They are going to be attractive in whatever they wear. They can’t help it! If you feel resentful of that, ask yourself why.
If you aren’t feeling confident about yourself, and feeling a little jealous of someone, pause for a moment. No one else’s beauty or talent diminishes how fabulous you are. Ask God to help you see yourself the way he sees you—the apple of his eye! Look at the right mirror, the word of God, for your true value as his prize. “The Lord of Heaven’s Armies sent me against the nations who plundered you. For he said, ‘Anyone who harms you harms my most precious possession.’” (Zechariah 2:8 NLT) The value that Christ places on you, just as you are, makes you infinitely valuable. You are a creation by the ultimate designer, amazing and fabulous at every season of life! Walk in that and extend grace and love. We become releasing and empowering chick leaders that way, not intimidated by the influence and beauty of other girls on our team. Let’s celebrate and find personal satisfaction in the successes of the girls we lead with. We are not competing!
I’m not suggesting that we should wear whatever we please or not have expectations for how our teams dress. Modesty absolutely matters. What we look like shapes people’s perception of who we are, so we have to pay close attention to it if we are being good stewards of our leadership influence. Modesty is certainly part of this equation.
Some of us carry roles where we do have to make sure that what the team is wearing is not offensive to people. If you do have to have to address a clothing malfunction, try this approach instead of a rebuke. Don’t make a big deal and pull them off into an office and close the door. Just make it light, and humor always helps. “Hey I know that you would want to know—when you bend over to pick up your water bottle on stage, the church is getting an eyeful of the girls. I’ve got some double-sided tape. It does wonders! I can help tape you up a bit.” This conversation comes from a place of support rather than an attack. Focus on a quick solution and skip the lecture about setting an example, or the evils of a temptress. It’s so much easier to receive when your motives and credibility aren’t being called into question.
Everyone, however, has their own opinions about what is modest. It’s 100% subjective.
I had a funny conversation with an American missionary friend of mine who recently married an Indian man. She had to think about modesty in her wedding photos from both the American perspective and the Indian perspective. In America, showing your arms is pretty much fair game just about universally, and showing your calves is also acceptable to most. In India, modesty means cover the arms and cover the legs to the ankle, but a bare midriff is totally cool. In western society, midriff is definitely off-limits for modesty! The definitions of modesty are cultural, not Biblical. In Bible times, showing your hair was immodest.
For me the bottom line is this: don’t show the line in your bottom. (I know, groan.) I don’t want my appearance to be a distraction to the message I am communicating. I want people to think about Jesus when they listen to me. A necklace or earrings that clank against my microphone, a flapping belt, running eye makeup, or exposed body parts all can be a distraction. The Bible says that God expects us to be modest. “And I want women to be modest in their appearance. They should wear decent and appropriate clothing” (1 Timothy 2:9 NLT) God doesn’t define what that is. He left that up to culture.
Not only are there societal expectations for modesty, but every church culture has different standards. Our ability to dress appropriately and decently is entirely hinged on our ability to read the culture we are in. I don’t normally wear a long skirt to church, but when I’m visiting some churches, I do. In those church cultures, to wear pants or a long skirt would be such a distraction that people couldn’t focus on Jesus. In those environments, I have to let go of my preferences about fashion to be received. I’m not more Godly by wearing a long skirt in those churches; I’m simply being respectful of culture.
You will not please everyone so don’t get panicky; just do your best. If you catch some criticism about an outfit, don’t take it to heart. Make sure you guard your heart about these things and don’t internalize the criticism. Roll with the punches and apologize, thanking them for bringing it to your attention. You didn’t mean to offend them in the first place, so there is no point to offending them further by getting defensive, but end the conversation quickly. You don’t owe them an explanation. Then deliberately forget about it. If you get this conversation frequently, chances are you aren’t reading your culture well enough.
After many awkward conversations and embarrassing moments, I’ve developed some basic modesty guidelines for myself in leadership environments. I’m not suggesting what works for me will work for everyone, but we do all need to think it through. Mine are something like this: If I wear tight bottoms, I wear a loose top. If I wear a tight top, I go loose on bottom. If I’m wearing leggings, then I always wear a long shirt. Keep all the important girl creases covered, especially on stage. I always wear sleeves on stage. I put a cami under delicate fabrics because what looks opaque in the bedroom light can suddenly be see-through under powerful stage lights. It’s safer to wear tights or leggings with an above the knee skirt. I keep the underwear covered as much as possible. I support the jiggly bits because great undergarments make us look our best.
FINDING YOUR LOOK IS NOT FINDING YOUR IDENTITY
American culture has had some had some traditional expectations about what pastors’ wives and female church leaders should wear. They aren’t especially cute. They tended to either cover every possible inch of skin in the least flattering way possible, or put us in a suit so we blend in with the dudes. If you like either of these two looks and feel like yourself wearing them, bravo! For you, dressing for church is officially easy. For most girls in leadership, finding our personal style is not so simple, and we usually feel quite a bit of pressure about getting it right. I like a variety of styles, and I wear all of them because I like the clothes, not because I’m trying to look like anyone in particular. We don’t have to stick to a fashion stereotype like urban, hipster, bohemian, or sporty because it’s our look. Personal style comes from knowing what we like and what we don’t.
Our identity is established through far more than what we look like. Our preferences determine our personal style, but our style is not our identity. Who we are primarily is the inward person. We don’t build our identity from the outside in, but from the inside out. When we build strong, healthy, confident souls, it shows up on our outsides. That’s why the Bible tells us that makeovers for the inside matter far more than the outside. “3 Don’t be concerned about the outward beauty of fancy hairstyles, expensive jewelry, or beautiful clothes. 4 You should clothe yourselves instead with the beauty that comes from within, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is so precious to God.” (1 Peter 3:3-4 NLT) This kind of loveliness does not decrease with age, just ripens! Our value does not come from our appearance, and the way we look does not change God’s love for us. If we don’t find our identity in our appearance, then it’s easy to change it to adapt to new cultures and new seasons in life. “I want women…in humility before God, not primping before a mirror or chasing the latest fashions but doing something beautiful for God and becoming beautiful doing it.” (I Timothy 2:10 MSG)
We all have days when we just feel dissatisfied with what’s in the mirror. Those are the days when we have to lean on our God identity, laugh a little bit, and throw our hands up in the air. A smile on our face is the most beauty-enhancing accessory we have!
DRESSING FOR LEADERSHIP & THE PLATFORM
God sees my heart and motives and judges me according to the real, inner me. People are different though. They can’t see my insides, so I have to make sure that my outsides reflect what is going on inside my heart. “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7 NIV) What we look like matters when it comes to leadership.
We show respect to the people we serve when we put thought into what we look like. If you don’t feel comfortable putting outfits together, get a girlfriend who is good to help style you. Don’t be resistant, just do it so you can look your best! Even if you aren’t an onstage person, you meet people every week, making a first impression. People make decisions about whether you are followable literally in seconds. We attract people who look like us because the way we look makes them feel comfortable.
If you don’t have a strong sense of personal style, start by dressing like the people you want to attract. If your community is full of sharp professionals, then you should probably have a selection of professional and business casual clothes. If your community has lots of fashion-conscious young adults, then pay attention to the trends. Classic, tailored clothing is always in style if you aren’t confident wearing the trends or can’t afford to purchase new trends frequently. As much as our deal-hunting hearts love to buy cheap cute stuff, a few good pieces look better for much longer than a bunch of cheap trendy clothes. They look better on you too. Accessories can change up the look if you get bored wearing the same stuff.
When I pick an outfit for the platform I want to feel good about how I look. A good follow-up question is, will this outfit help me connect with people or cause them to disconnect? When it comes to the platform, we need to value people’s respect over their admiration. That’s a tough call for us girls to make, because we love to be admired. Leadership has a different goal. When ministry is self-centered, it needs admiration. We are more than entertainers. We want people to receive Jesus through what we say or do. We have to earn people’s respect for them to be willing to receive from us. Earning respect starts with the visual picture we create. If adapting your personal style for leadership is a hard ask, think about what Paul said. “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (I Corinthians 9:22 NIV) Paul was willing to change his style in different environments to make it easier for people to receive his ministry. He recognized that when people’s eternal salvation is at stake, it’s well worth the personal cost of adjusting.
Dressing to stand on a platform in church is different than dressing for an office or a night out with the girls or hubs. Being uncomfortable in your clothes on stage is the worst. You need to be able to move freely if you are talking or singing. A jacket that constricts your arm movement, or a skirt that restricts your leg movement becomes a nagging distraction. Heels help us look good, heels that are so high you can’t move without watching where you are putting your feet look awkward. You want to be thinking about the people you are talking to, not about staying upright or how badly your feet are hurting. Makeup helps people see the expressions on our face. There are factors on stage that you don’t have to deal with in normal life.
When you are comfortable and confident on stage, you make everyone in the room feel comfortable. That is ultimately the goal. We want people feel comfortable enough to receive us. Then we can connect them to Jesus.
Princesses are supposed to behave conventionally. The classic princess story goes something like this. A good, sweet girl falls on hard times, and then meets a rich, powerful boy who rescues her. She lives the rest of her princess life in happily ever after—private luxury, ease, and privilege. Every now and again, however, princesses don’t follow this story line. Great Britain’s Princess Diana was one of these. She started out with a traditional story, but once she got to the happily-ever-after part she wasn’t content. She defied expectations and started working to change wrongs in the world, like AIDS (unmentionable in polite society) and land mines (no place for a lady). People still call her “the people’s princess.“
The book of Nehemiah spares one small sentence for a couple of unusual princesses. Their story starts out with the nation of Israel in exile. The city of Jerusalem was in ruins, flattened to nothing but rubble, and its people scattered across the continent, many enslaved. After many generations of this, God moved on the heart of the ruling emperor. He gave two Jewish leaders permission to go rebuild their hometown, Jerusalem. Ezra was a priest, and Nehemiah, a politician. They gathered Jewish exiles and resources and moved their families back to this rock pile that used to be Jerusalem. Right away, they got to work rebuilding this once-beautiful city, starting with the walls. Many naysayers and enemies of their cause threatened the fragile reconstruction, so the protection of this wall was vital. For these people, building a wall was the first step in rebuilding their community. This step reestablished their national identity as a people group and a culture—a kingdom.
Nehemiah was a great leader and a gifted administrator; so much of the book of Nehemiah describes his detailed records of families, resources, and the process of rebuilding. In good administrator fashion, Nehemiah divvied up the work between the families. Nehemiah assigned a section of the wall to every family that came with him. It was their job to make sure their part of the wall was rebuilt completely and solidly. Nehemiah recorded every family that helped rebuild the wall. Reading these lists can be brutally boring, but If you don’t mentally check out in the monotony of these records, there are some stories in the cracks. Most of the families get a simple mention, but a few stick out because they are described a little bit differently.
Not everyone had the same attitude toward building. One family had members that just wouldn’t build at all. “The next section was repaired by the men of Tekoa, but their nobles would not put their shoulders to work under their supervisors.” (Nehemiah 3:5) Nehemiah didn’t explain why they wouldn’t help, but we can read between the lines. Maybe they had other things to do, things they considered to be more important. Perhaps they didn’t like the supervisors and felt like it would be degrading to take direction from these guys. Maybe they were lazy, or wanted to put their efforts into rebuilding their own homes rather than the wall. Whatever the reason, they come off as selfish.
Nehemiah also described a family that built for their own self-interest. “Jedaiah son of Harumpah made repairs opposite his house.” (Nehemiah 3:10) This guy only worked on the wall where it provided a direct benefit to him. This was the place the wall protected his home and family. Interestingly, Nehemiah offers no judgment about either one of these families, and he didn’t exclude Jedaiah from building because of his selfish motive. Both families benefitted from what everyone else worked to build.
It was a third family that caught my attention. “Shallum son of Hallohesh, ruler of a half-district of Jerusalem, repaired the next section with the help of his daughters.” (Nehemiah 3:12) Apparently, these were the only girls who worked on the wall. All the other many workers Nehemiah mentioned were men. Construction work today is still pretty much a dude’s world, and as far as I’m concerned, more power to them. I have no desire to jump in there. What’s so interesting to me is that these girls would not have been used to this kind of work, or even expected to do this kind of work. They weren’t tomboys; they were princesses—daughters of a ruler. What possessed them to take ownership of rebuilding a section of the wall with their father? Did he have sons? If he didn’t, surely he could have afforded to hire builders to help him as a ruler in Jerusalem.
These dainty, well-manicured girls were used to quiet life behind walls with attendants who catered to their every need. They would have enjoyed fine fabrics, good food, and a cool life in the shade. They were valuable simply by who they were. They didn’t need to do anything to earn respect. They were the daughters of a ruler, and so had high value for strategic alliances through marriage, and for nurturing small children into future leadership.
These pampered ladies heard Nehemiah’s appeal for families to rebuild a portion of the wall and something stirred on the inside of them. They put aside their comfort and stepped outside of their carefully orchestrated life. They took their place next to their father, and picked up chisel and hammer. Small arms, unused to heavy labor, strained to shift heavy stones. Fine brown dust sifted into every crevice of their beautiful clothing and into their carefully arranged hair. As the hours passed, blisters began to swell in their sandals and where their delicate hands gripped unfamiliar tools. Muscles trembled with effort. The sun must have scorched their gentle faces, burning skin accustomed to shady breezes. What determination kept them at these exhausting efforts? How great a cause kept them at the wall?
The Bible doesn’t tell us anything more about these girls, but what it doesn’t tell us says as much as what it does. These girls must have recognized the significance of that moment. They wanted to be part of this work, to contribute what they could. This was no ordinary wall for them. And they were right—millions of people around the globe, thousands of years later, are still reading about rebuilding this wall. These princesses had the ability to recognize the significance of what they were building. This was so valuable that they couldn’t resist jumping in to help, even though it was not expected and well outside their comfort zone. They worked because they loved the outcome.
Saying yes to building the wall meant saying no to other things. I wonder what these girls set aside to be part of this work. Would they have endured the criticism of the other ladies of the community? Would coarse men have mocked their efforts? Did they have small children who waited with nannies? Did they have responsibilities in their own home that had to wait? Whatever their usual occupation, it was left behind. They put all their passion into this work, with an undivided heart. “The people worked with all their hearts.” (Nehemiah 4:6)
Not only did these girls jump in helping with manual labor, they also had to be prepared to fight to defend themselves when the locals got hostile. “Each of the builders wore his sword at his side as he worked.” (Nehemiah 4:18) I can only imagine the anxiety these girls must have felt, awkwardly building while knocking into things with the sword at their side. Perhaps they were trained to handle a weapon, perhaps not, but they did not even let the threat of violence deter their efforts.
The nobles of Tekoa must have heard about this and felt ashamed. What was happening at this little section of the wall was so unusual that every other family must have talked it about as they worked. I can imagine men casually walking past, sneaking a look over their shoulder to check out the princesses with mud all over their arms as they filled in the chinks. What a story to tell around the dinner table!
People are basically the same as they were thousands of years ago. We have the same the same attitudes when it comes time to roll up our sleeves and build. Nehemiah was rebuilding a wall around the city of Jerusalem. We build churches that provide walls of protection around our communities, our homes, and around the hearts of people—places of refuge. We can choose what kind of attitude we build with.
For many who enjoy the protection the church provides, to ask them for help building those walls is too much. They hesitate to contribute their finances, their time or efforts because of the other things on their calendar. Their own businesses and homes are more important. Some hesitate because they don’t like the people that they would have to take direction from, or they don’t feel any connection to the team already working. Others get in and help but only where it benefits them. Some parents will serve in children’s ministry as long as their children are in the classes. Some singers will serve as long as they get the opportunities they want. Their motives are for themselves.
I want to have the spirit of the daughters of Shallum. They caught a vision for building, and they were so passionate that they would do anything to help! I want to have a heart that says yes, no matter what the attitudes of everyone else are. These girls worked hard to build and they were willing to go to battle to defend what they were building. When we catch a vision for how important our churches are for our families and our communities, being part of the work isn’t just our priority; it’s our privilege. These are the kind of people our churches need. This is the kind of person I want to be.
For leaders, it’s so easy for us to pigeonhole people where we meet them. We tend to view people’s contribution around what we know they are capable of. It’s a faith stretch for us to keep pushing those limits. It’s always risky to give someone new responsibilities, but it is our responsibility as leaders. Good leaders identify potential, and believe that someone is capable before they believe in themselves. Let’s think bigger, and ask a princess to pick up a sword and a shovel. You never know—they might be just waiting for someone to ask them. The right help can come where we least expect it!
For me to be like these girls means I won’t hesitate to work hard when the season requires it. I don’t have to be afraid to jump into something I don’t feel confident or comfortable doing. Nehemiah didn’t comment on how good at building these girls were or weren’t. What matters is not how well I perform, but that I am getting involved, part of something bigger than my own world. My value doesn’t come from my talents or my work, but from whom I am as a daughter of the king. We don’t know these girls’ names, but they had significance in this story because of who their father was—the same place we find our value. Shallum’s daughters were unconventional princesses.
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.
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)