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.