I went out for sushi with a friend. She’s the kind of friend I love talking with and who always leaves me feeling encouraged. During this particular conversation, I noticed something interesting:
Whenever she’d say, “I know I should…,” what followed would sound spiritual and “Christian”—like things I grew up hearing at church. But strangely, it wouldn’t sound like anything I’ve read about Jesus’ life in the Gospels. And when she’d apologetically say, “But I decided to…,” I’d be reminded of passages throughout Scripture and I’d see parallels between her life choices and the life Jesus modeled for us.
My friend is following Jesus. And in order to do that, she has to reject the patterns of this world—including ways the Church has adopted and spiritualized these patterns.
Isn’t that weird? At least, shouldn’t it be? And shouldn’t this be cause for alarm?
We’re followers / disciples / apprentices of Jesus. Whatever terminology you like to use, we’re to strive to look more and more like Him. But sometimes we confuse the way of Jesus with church culture. Church culture doesn’t always look and sound like Jesus. In fact, sometimes it’s conforming to church culture that prevents us from becoming more like Jesus. (What a brilliant way for the enemy to keep the Church from actually living like the Body of Christ! “Make it sound spiritual and put Jesus’ name on it, then they’ll accept it without question!”)
I want my heart to be aligned with Jesus’ heart, to look and sound like Him, to reflect Him every way I can. Unfortunately, that means there are times when I must make choices that go against the culture of the Church (or at least the American Church). And that means people who know church culture better than actual Jesus will accuse me of things that sound a lot like the things Jesus was accused of.
• What if we accepted Jesus’ invitation to learn from Him, diving deep into Scripture with humility in the fact that we don’t always get everything right and we still have more to learn?
• What if we investigated whether or not each supposed truth we label “biblical” is actually in the Bible and in alignment with the heart of God?
• What if we chose to follow Jesus—actually follow the words He spoke and the way He lived as it’s revealed in Scripture rather than what some people or our church culture tells us is “biblical”?
So here’s my challenge to you: The next time you find yourself thinking, “I feel like as a Christian I should…,” ask these two questions:
1. Does this thing I feel I should believe/think/do/be resemble what Jesus lived and taught? (If you can’t find it in Jesus’ life and teachings or anywhere else in Scripture, that’s a big red flag. So be specific. Where is it in Scripture? And if you find a verse, zoom out and look at the context of the chapter, book, and whole of Scripture. Is that really what that passage is saying? Or has it been misunderstood or taken out of context?)
2. What is the Spirit saying to me? Could it be that what the Spirit is saying to me contradicts something I’ve been taught but is actually in alignment with the way of Jesus as revealed in Scripture?
One more thing: Live this out in community. Find people who will ask these questions with you, lovingly call you out when you don’t live them, and aggressively encourage you when you do.
A couple weeks ago, I received an email from one of the pastors in my local church. He asked if I could lead a prayer at our upcoming evening worship and prayer service. (We have one of these every month.) The area he asked me to pray for is one I’m passionate about: the racial issues in our country. I was honored to be asked. But the overwhelming feeling I had when I responded with my “yes” was fear and dread. Our church is predominantly white; the demographics of our congregation reflects the demographics of our city (which is statistically one of the whitest cities in America). Let me be clear: I LOVE my church! It’s a great church with wonderful people. But what was being asked of me was still terrifying. I voiced my fears to my husband:
“How on earth am I supposed to lead a congregation to pray as one about something in which we’re so divided?”
“How do I—a woman of color in a predominantly white space—lead a prayer about racial issues in a way that won’t get labeled ‘divisive,’ but is still honest and genuine?”
“What happens if this doesn’t go well?” (This was my biggest question/worry. Did I mention that my husband’s on pastoral staff at this church?)
I labored over the words I’d pray, crafting the words while whispering again and again, “God, I can’t do this. Please help me!” He gave me words. And I prayed them on my own each day leading up to the service. Alone in my living room, I felt the weight of the words. This is not a safe prayer, I thought. I felt something else, too. Something beautiful was happening.
Last night, as I walked up the steps of the platform to lead our congregation in prayer, my heart raced and I unsuccessfully fought to stop shaking. In my fear—yes, I did it scared!—I kept my head down and my eyes on my iPad. As I prayed, I heard something I hoped for but didn’t expect: voices rising in agreement. There were only a couple times when I felt the crowd get quiet. My husband prepared me for this: “There will be moments when they’ll get quiet because they don’t know yet how to pray about some of these things. They’ll get quiet so they can listen and learn. It’s a good thing. Just keep going.” I remembered his words and kept going all the way to the “amen.” Something indeed happened last night. It felt as though something hard that needed to be broken was beginning to break. This is just a beginning. I wrote in my journal after I got home, “I feel it—really feel it. Hope.”
After the service, a number of people asked if I could send them a copy of what I prayed. This morning, I got more messages with the same request. So here it is. What follows are the words I spoke and prayed (including a couple notes to myself to breathe) at Central Assembly in Springfield, Missouri on the evening of Sunday, February 6, 2022. May we continue to pray these words. And as we do, may we learn to live them.
We’re going to pray about the racial issues in our country. [Take a breath.] And I know that as soon as I said those words, every single one of us felt something and our minds got loud with ideas and beliefs. And the range of thoughts is so wide that it can seem too insurmountable for us to be able to pray as one.
So here’s what we’re going to do:
Everyone, hold out your hands in front of you, and clench your fists. (No hitting! We’re not about to fight each other!) Prayerfully imagine that in your fists are all the things you think and feel when you hear the words, “racial issues”…because we’re not going to be able to pray as a unified voice until we deal with what we’re holding in our fists.
As I begin, I want you to pray, “God, here’s all my stuff. I want to give You access to all of it.” And when You’re ready, I invite you to open your hands in surrender to Jesus. If you need more time before you’re ready, that’s okay. The important thing is that we all move a little closer to God in this moment.
God, we’re symbolically holding in our fists
ways we believe we’re right and others are wrong,
ways we’ve allowed ideologies to hinder us from loving well,
maybe feelings of apathy or annoyance,
or a desire for things to be better and exhaustion by the weight of it all,
maybe disillusionment, anger, or disappointment in our brothers and sisters in Christ,
maybe pain or even trauma.
Some of the things we’re holding are right in Your eyes and some are not. For most, what we’re holding is complicated. And all of it needs to be surrendered to You—whether for repentance, or so You can sanctify it to be used for Your glory, or so You can do Your miraculous healing work.
So God, here’s all our stuff. Help us surrender it all to You.
If you feel ready, go ahead and open your hands and pray with me:
Jesus, we surrender it all to You. We give You access to all of it. Align our hearts to Yours and let Your will be done in and through us.
So now we lift up our church, our community, and our nation.
God, we lift up the Black community.
We lift up the Native American community.
We lift up the Latino community.
We lift up the Asian American and Pacific Islander community.
We lift up everyone who’s part of the majority culture.
The needs are many.
We pray for demonic strongholds to be destroyed. Break the strongholds of racism and white supremacy in our country and even our churches. Disturb what needs to be disturbed and change hearts.
We pray for repentance to continue and to be thorough. We’ve come a long way, but still have far to go. Help us to repent and bear fruit in keeping with repentance. As Daniel, Nehemiah, and others repented for the communal sins of Israel, we repent of our nation’s sins as well as our own.
In commenting on MLK’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” Mrs. Coretta King said: “At that moment it seemed as if the Kingdom of God appeared. But it only lasted for a moment.” God, there was a moment when it felt like we were on the brink of racial healing, but it only lasted for a moment, and too many returned to business as usual.
We repent of our prejudices, the ways we’ve wrongly judged, painted groups of people with broad strokes, or turned people into demeaning caricatures. We repent of the actions and inaction that flowed from these ways of thinking.
We repent of disobeying your command to care for the foreigner and the ways we’ve treated ethnic minorities like they are “other” and do not belong.
We repent of the ways we’ve upheld or been complicit with unjust systems.
We repent of choosing to be colorblind when the dream of Your Kingdom is not one of ethnic erasure but one that envisions every nation, tribe, and language worshiping together before Your throne. Give us eyes to be color brave, to see the beauty of our ethnicities and the ways they reflect the image of God.
We repent of choosing comfort over bravery.
We repent of participating in racial jokes or degrading comments, whether we were the one speaking the words or were complicit with our laughter or silence.
We repent of being silent when we should have spoken up in either correction or encouragement.
We repent of getting so caught up in ideologies and partisan talking points that we’ve allowed ourselves to treat people—fellow bearers of the image of God—as though they’re the enemy.
We repent of getting so caught up in debate that we fail to listen, show empathy, compassion, and love.
We repent of treating racial issues as though they’re problems “out there” and neglecting to care for those among us who are hurting.
We repent of the times we’ve prayed without action and the times we’ve acted without prayer.
I pray for us to not settle for superficial peace, but to be agents of healing and justice.
Give our lawmakers the wisdom to correct unjust laws and systems.
Raise up more Christians like Bryan Stevenson to advocate for the victims of our unjust laws and systems and work towards equity.
I pray for the violence against Black and brown bodies to stop. Oh, God, we denounce violence in all its forms. We denounce violence that’s inflicted on anyone. This week, with the start of Black History Month, at least 13 Historically Black Colleges and Universities were forced to close due to bomb threats. Oh God, we cry out for true peace in our land. As we often pray for a shield of protection when we travel, we pray for a shield of protection around ethnic minorities.
In “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King lamented, “So here we are moving toward the exit of the twentieth century with a religious community largely adjusted to the status quo, standing as a taillight behind other community agencies rather than a headlight leading men to higher levels of justice.” Oh God, may we be a headlight leading people to higher levels of justice! Give Your Church—here at Central and throughout our country—the wisdom and anointing to be brave in calling out unjust attitudes and systems, to be brave in doing the work of racial reconciliation, and to be brave in praying for and working towards shalom in our land. Holy Spirit, lead us and help us lead the way.
[Take a breath.]
Since the start of the pandemic, there’s been a drastic rise in Anti-Asian violence. Asian Americans have been bombarded with videos of people who look like us and our parents being attacked and murdered. A couple months ago, there was news of an Asian man who was shot multiple times. He was about my father’s age and was killed in Chicago’s Chinatown, a place my father frequents. So when I saw the news headline, without thinking, I instinctually looked up the details of the story to make sure it wasn’t my father. This is a glimpse of what racial trauma looks like.
Jesus, we lift up those who are hurting and suffering racial trauma.
We’re hurting. And sometimes the pain is too heavy and hope feels impossible. Oh Jesus, You understand wounds. So we welcome You into our pain and we bring You our lament. We bring You all our anger and frustration, all our why-s and how longs.
We pray for every BIPOC person who is carrying trauma in their bodies and their spirit. God of all comfort, I beg You to heal us.
Help us as we absorb yet another insensitive comment, dirty look, or hurtful action. Keep our hearts soft and our armors strong. May we forgive and, at the same time, not internalize the racism we experience.
Help us when the news of another assault or murder triggers our trauma and fear.
Our Father, there’s so much brokenness. But You are the Lord of righteousness and justice, God of miracles and infinite possibility. Heal our land. Amen.
The following is a message I shared in a Drury University chapel service this week. This semester, the theme many of the speakers are exploring is “One Another.” And for anyone reading this who has taken a homiletics class (or four), yes, I realize this message isn’t “balanced” in that it’s extremely heavy on application. On the other end of the spectrum, I hate that I ended up with three points! (I typically go for a more story-like structure that takes you from point A to point B.) Moral of the story: Say the thing God wants you to say through whatever structure communicates it best!
There’s a phrase we often use when we talk about what being a Christian is: “personal relationship with Jesus.” But what does that really mean?
It means we can know Jesus—not just know about Jesus, but we can know Him—personally. We don’t need someone to mediate for us. He’s not distant. He is the God who is with us. One of Jesus’ last words to the disciples before He ascended to Heaven is, “Behold, I am with you, even to the end of the age.” He’s not just with us in an ethereal sense; we have the freedom to approach Him and talk to Him whenever we want. The idea that we can have a personal relationship with God is a distinctive of Christianity.
The problem with the phrase, “personal relationship with Jesus,” is that we live in an individualist and consumerist culture. And it becomes easy for us to look at our personal relationship with Jesus with me-centered eyes.
Being a follower of Jesus is bigger than “me and Jesus.” Being a follower of Jesus means being part of something bigger than ourselves.
So here are a couple questions I’d like you to consider: Do people know you have a personal relationship with Jesus? And if they do, how do they know?
Because you told them you’re a Christian?
Because you post Christian things on social media?
Because you go to church or pray before you eat a meal?
Or because when they think of you, they think of someone who loves well?
In John 13:34-35, Jesus said:
I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you are also to love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.
In Matthew 22: 35-40, Jesus articulated the two greatest commandments:
…an expert in the law, asked a question to test him: “Teacher, which command in the law is the greatest?”
He said to him, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”
Isn’t it interesting that these two commands that all of God’s other commands depend on are both relational and social?
In Matthew 5:43-45, Jesus went so far as to say:
You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.
Later, in Galatians 5:22, Paul described the fruit of the Spirit—one fruit with nine qualities. And what’s the first quality of the fruit of the Spirit? Love.
What marks us as Christians isn’t our piety, how often we go to church, or even our spiritual disciplines. Those things are important and have their place, but they’re not what marks us as Christians. The mark of being a follower of Jesus is love.
And as followers of Jesus, love is the thing out of which everything we do flows.
So I want to spend the rest of this time exploring this question: What does loving one another look like?
This isn’t going to be exhaustive, but I hope to give you a glimpse of what loving one another can look like and to challenge you to love others more deeply.
Loving one another looks like empathy and presence.
The Bible uses a lot of metaphors to describe the Church and one of them is the concept of family. When Jesus taught His disciples to pray, He taught them to open with the words, “Our Father.” He could have taught them to say, “My Father,” but a personal relationship with God isn’t just, “Me and God.” Like I said earlier, having a personal relationship with God means that we can know God personally, but it means more than that. It means that we are members of God’s family.
This past month, my husband and I were in Alabama to mourn the loss of my father-in-law. Because Alabama is farther along in the vaccine rollout, we were able to hold a service that people were actually able to attend. And it was beautiful to see what kind of people came.
There were people who lived locally whom my mother-in-law hadn’t seen in decades—people who had worked with my father-in-law at the first company he worked at after college. They showed their love just by being there.
And then there was one of my husband’s cousins. To give you some context, my father-in-law was one of twelve, so my husband has a LOT of cousins! We’ve been married for almost 18 years and I still can’t keep them all straight. In fact, there are cousins I haven’t even met yet! Of the cousins my husband actually has a relationship with, there were a number of them we expected to see because they live in the area. But there were a couple that came that were a complete surprise because they had to travel (in a pandemic!) to be there. As we spoke with one of them, he told us what compelled him to make the trip to be there: “These are the cousins I know.” I met this same cousin when Daniel and I got married. He had to travel a far distance to come to that, too. So he has both celebrated with us and mourned with us.
Loving one another means seeing people where they’re at and choosing to be with them, rejoicing with them when they rejoice and mourning with them when they mourn. Loving one another looks like empathy and presence.
Loving one another looks like living for something bigger than ourselves.
How do we do that? Through our choices.
The choices we make aren’t just about us. There’s no, “I’m making this choice for me.” Our choices impact those around us.
Are there choices we make that don’t matter? Sure! A few weeks ago I bought a purse and had to choose whether I wanted the brown one or the black one. Neither one of those choices make a difference in how well I love.
Now I will say, there was another purse I’d been eyeing for months—stay with me here—but it was way out of my budget. So if I would have bought that other purse, it would have meant less money in the bank. The purse I ended up buying was almost exactly the same as the one I was eyeing except it was a different color and it was 75% off, so I could make it work within our budget. And why does it matter that I made a choice to work within our budget? Because I’ve been wanting to live more generously. And staying within our budget gives us more room to be generous and to love others better.
A completely unspiritual choice can open up possibilities for spiritual things!
Our choices—even some that we think don’t really matter—impact those around us.
Last Friday, I got my second vaccine shot. As I was getting it, I started tearing up and said to the nurse, “I’m getting emotional!” And she said, “That’s understandable! You’ve never lived through anything like this before.” And then she said something that made me tear up even more: “Just think about the difference you’re making!”
As we’ve navigated the pandemic over the past year, we’ve seen a lot of opinions about wearing masks, whether or not we should get the vaccine, and a gajillion other things. I’m not here to make a partisan argument. Science is important. The Constitution is important. And it’s okay if we have convictions about those things. It’s okay for science or the Constitution to be a reason why you advocate for something. But as Christians, the thing that should be our primary, core motivation, the motivation that trumps all others, the thing that most compels our actions…is love.
You see, if we advocate for science but without love, or if we advocate for the Constitution but without love, we can cause a lot of destruction.
If you study history, it doesn’t take long to see ways that both science and the Constitution have produced some bad fruit and have been used (and at times, manipulated) to justify some awful things, from slavery to the use of atomic bombs.
But when our core motivation is love:
instead of destruction, we create;
instead of despair, we bring hope;
and in a world that is broken, we bring healing.
Loving one another looks like empathy and presence. It looks like living for something bigger than ourselves. And…
Loving one another looks like allowing God to transform us when it’s hard to love.
Our world is divided. And one of the things that has broken my heart over the past year is to see all the ways that the Church is divided, too.
There’s so much fear, anger, and hate. And I’m gonna to be honest: as a woman of color, it has been a struggle to love. People I disagree with who aren’t Christian? I can love them—easy. But Christians who post racist or misogynistic things on social media, people who marginalize me within Christian spaces and force me to defend the dignity and worth of myself and others who look like me, people for whom I think, “They’re Christians! They should know better and do better!” Not easy.
I don’t know who you struggle to love, but know that your struggle doesn’t make you a bad Christian—it makes you human. Opening our hearts to love people also means opening our hearts to be hurt by people. And unfortunately, some people do a lot of damage and never repent, never try to be better, never try to fix what they broke, never even say sorry.
So what do we do about people who are hard to love? We can’t will ourselves to love better! We can’t love our enemies or the people who’ve hurt us without God’s help.
Start by bringing your honest, unfiltered feelings to God. Don’t hold anything back from Him. If you want to learn how to do that, the Psalms are a great place to start. There’s no human emotion that isn’t expressed somewhere in the pages of the Psalms. God gave space for celebration, joy, and hopefulness. But He also gave space for lament, sadness, discouragement, depression, anger. And if God gave space for those emotions in the Bible, we can know that God gives space for those emotions in us as well. Our emotions—even the dark ones we try to hide from other people—are safe with God. Sometimes we think, “I don’t want to have this emotion, so I’m going to ignore it and pretend it’s not there.” But there’s a better way. You don’t have to hide those things from God.
When you give God access to those parts of yourself, you also give space for Him to heal and transform you—not with a neat and tidy bandaid, but with true healing. And when we experience God’s healing and transformation, we can truly love.
So what does this look like? We can pray, “God, I really wish this person or these people would [insert all the dark stuff you don’t want to wish on them but deep down you really do].” And feel safe in the knowledge that God won’t be surprised by any of those thoughts or feelings because He already knows you have them! It’s not about telling God so He can see them. It’s about telling God so you can give Him access to every single part of your heart. And when you’ve laid it all before God, ask Him to do His work in and through those painful thoughts and emotions.
As you pray for people who are hard to love, you might need to start by praying for God to help you to be able to pray for them!
And then over time, you can try praying for God to change their heart—for them to see the harm they’ve caused and to come to a place of repentance. And maybe one day, you can even come to a place where you can pray for their well-being and flourishing wherever they are.
And even if they never change, you want God to have access to heal and transform the part of your heart that was hurt by them—not to excuse what they’ve done, but so the hurt they caused doesn’t hold you back from being able to love others and to also be able to receive love from others.
Because love is our purpose and calling as followers of Jesus. It’s even our birthright as children of God because we’re not just meant to give it but to also receive it.
Let’s love one another with empathy and presence.
Let’s love one another by living for something bigger than ourselves.
And let’s even allow God to transform us when it’s hard to love.
There are SO MANY Bible study tools available. And among them are a lot of great resources as well as a lot of…um…not so great ones. So if you don’t know what you’re looking for (or maybe even if you do), navigating the sea of accessible Bible study tools can be overwhelming. So I thought I’d let you see some of my go-tos. Please note that even though I tried to keep this list short and simple, it can still seem like a lot if you’re just getting started. So after getting a Bible, if you want to start with just one thing, skip to the very end!
My Go-To Bibles:
First things first. The most important tool when you’re studying the Bible is…a Bible.
She Reads Truth Bible – There are a lot of Bibles in my home in a vast array of translations, languages, and editions. But when I’m sitting down to spend time with Jesus, this is the first one I grab. It has helpful resources in it (devotionals, charts, timelines, etc.) but not so much that I get bogged down in overthinking mode. In other words, it has a clean design and doesn’t look like a textbook. It also has wide margins, so it’s a great journaling Bible. (Random fun fact: one of the devotional writers is Jill McDaniel. Who’s Jill McDaniel? She goes to my church and she’s my friend. Also, she’s awesome.)
He Reads Truth Bible – I love my SRT Bible so much that I bought my husband the HRT Bible when it came out. Unlike the SRT Bible, the HRT Bible doesn’t have any devotionals in it. BUT, it does contain more resources (charts and such) that they developed after making the She Reads Truth Bible. Because of that, it’s not uncommon for me to borrow my husband’s Bible.
ESV Study Bible – This is pretty much the gold standard of study Bibles! It’s what I go to when I want to get into the nitty gritty. Its pages contain a wealth of diagrams, charts, notes, and a whole lot more. (Something to keep in consideration is that many of the notes in this study Bible are written from a more Reformed perspective. If that’s a turnoff for you, I list another great study Bible below.)
Bible.com – This is a free digital Bible website and app. I mostly use this when I’m on the go or when I’m looking up passages in multiple versions. (I also link to Bible.com whenever I quote passages in my blog. 😉 ) The She Reads Truth app and He Reads Truth app are also great digital Bible options.
Since words—especially words in the Bible—don’t always mean what we think they mean, here are a couple websites where you can click/tap on a word in a passage and find out what it means: NetBible.org and BibleWebApp.com.
Bible Background Resources:
Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible – I didn’t list this under the “My Go-To Bibles” category because I only have this Bible in Kindle format, so I mostly use it for the articles. If you don’t already have a study Bible, I highly recommend this one! (I link the NIV below, but it also comes in NKJV and NRSV.)
To be honest, I don’t use the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible as much because the following two books are my go-to for historical and cultural background deep dives.
John Walton and Craig Keener, the writers for the notes in the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, are the same people who wrote these commentaries. When I read these commentaries, I often find myself exclaiming out loud, “What?! This passage makes so much more sense now!”
The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament
The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament
A note about commentaries for Biblical studies and ministerial students: I use a lot more commentaries than what I list here. I’m not going to list any of them here, because the point of this post is to give people who are beginning to study the Bible a starting point. Which commentaries are best? It depends on which book of the Bible you’re studying and what you’re looking for in a commentary. So when you’re picking commentaries, do your research and use more than one source when you can (libraries can help!).
I love BibleProject so much that I got their ginormous coffee table book that has all the diagrams and summaries from the videos for each book of the Bible.
Honestly, I could spend hours just sitting and watching BibleProject videos. They have so much to explore! But when it comes to my regular Bible study, what do I do with these BibleProject resources? Before I begin reading a book of the Bible, I like to watch the corresponding video that “outlines its structure and design and how it fits into the entire biblical story.” And then I like to keep the coffee table book open close by so that if I feel like I’ve lost where I am in the larger story—especially when I’m reading a particularly lengthy book—I can glance up and get my bearings.
Okay, so I told you some of my go-tos. What are some of yours?
As I share my stories, people tell me theirs. And they tell me how my story made them feel seen, or gave them hope in the midst of something hard, or even inspired them to pray a courageous prayer…”because I know you went through this.” My favorite is when someone tells me how a story I shared however many years ago is helping them through something they’re going through now.
Stories are like seeds. When they’re told, they’re buried in minds and hearts. And one day—maybe even years later—they bear fruit.
I’m 38 years old. I’ve been married for 17 years. And I have no children. This is not the story I would’ve chosen for myself, but it’s the one I’m living. And though it’s not an easy story to live, I love it. After all, who wants to read a story where the characters are always happy and never experience anything hard? Give me the stories with adventure, surprises, and conflict, the ones that end with the characters completely transformed.
So here I am in my wonderful, messy story. And as I type these words, I’m sitting on my couch with a heating pad on my belly as I recover from a total hysterectomy.
A number of years ago, a dear friend of mine (who’s only a few years older than me) walked the road of infertility, multiple surgeries, and then ultimately a hysterectomy. She chose to be open about her struggles and anguish. She poured out her heart in the beautiful, dissonant words she typed on social media. I don’t think she had any idea what kind of seed she was planting in my heart as I silently read her posts. Neither of us knew I would live her words several years later. The difference for me is I had less to discover on my own. Her wrestling emboldened my battle. And her hope in God became kindling for mine.
When it was my turn to get a hysterectomy, I knew it was a good thing, that my life would still be abundant and beautiful. I knew because I saw her go through this. And in the moments when I felt afraid or discouraged, her story gave me courage. After my surgery, I texted her, “I remember when you walked this road. Knowing you went through this made it less scary for me!”
The surgery is over, but I’m suddenly in another chapter. My surgery thrust me into menopause, no transition to ease me into it. And I find I’m completely clueless. I grappled with questions about my womanhood when I came to grips with my barrenness, and now I’m asking questions about my womanhood again as I take my first steps in the sea of menopause. I don’t know how to swim in these waters.
Menopause is one of those things in our culture we don’t discuss beyond a few jokes here and there. And because of that, I grew up believing menopause was something to be dreaded, something that carried all sorts of horribleness and no possible good. I don’t quite know what the truth is about menopause or how to discover it. Generations of women have walked this path before me, yet I feel like I’m clearing the path for myself all alone.
The areas we choose to make taboo are the areas where we rob the next generation from flourishing. I wish I could have entered this new phase of life armed with the stories of women who have gone before me. I can’t change what was. But I can change things for those who will come after me.
So here’s my challenge to all of us:
Whatever our stories are, it’s time to bring them to the light. And let’s create a culture that cherishes these stories and celebrates their telling, no matter how mundane or painful or joyous. Let’s plant these seeds so those who come after us can eat of their fruit and flourish!
***Some words of caution about sharing your story that I added later:
While I believe we could powerfully impact the generations that come after us by giving space to tell stories about things that were once taboo, I’m not advocating we share every detail about everything. We need wisdom and care with the stories we share.
I consider whether or not a story is one I’m willing to be vulnerable about. Being vulnerable means opening ourselves to the possibility of being hurt. So when I’m considering whether or not I’m willing to share something, I ask myself, Can I handle someone saying something mean or insensitive about this right now? I don’t believe we should open up everything in our lives to that, especially areas where we’re still in the process of healing.
When a story involves other people, I consider whether or not a story is completely mine to tell. There are stories I’ll never blog about because even though I feel comfortable sharing my part of the story, it’s not my place to decide when other people will be vulnerable with their part.
One last thing: some stories can be shared openly and publicly. But there are some stories that should be reserved for spaces where we feel safe, whether that’s a small group or a one-on-one conversation with someone we trust.
I know it doesn’t sound very spiritual to have a favorite book of the Bible, but the Psalms are my favorite. This ancient hymnbook connects me to the generations who came before me: the Israelites, Jesus and the apostles, the early Church…Though the languages differ, the words are the same. And oh, it’s beautiful! Not a pristine beauty—a raw, messy, and wild kind of beauty.
I cry aloud to God,
aloud to God, and he will hear me.
In the day of my trouble I see the Lord;
in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying;
my soul refuses to be comforted.
When I remember God, I moan;
when I meditate, my spirit faints. Selah
You hold my eyelids open;
I am so troubled that I cannot speak.
I consider the days of old,
the years long ago.
I said, “Let me remember my song in the night;
let me meditate in my heart.”
Then my spirit made a diligent search:
“Will the Lord spurn me forever,
and never again be favorable?
Has his steadfast love forever ceased?
Are his promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has he in anger shut up his compassion? Selah
(Psalm 77:1-9, ESV)
These aren’t pretty words with which to adorn your house or sing in a peppy worship song. These are words of deep suffering. They articulate tough, theological questions about God, the kind of questions that feel too irreverent to ask, but unrelentingly nag at our souls when we’re in the thick of desperation.
God, where are You?
Can You hear me?
Have You forgotten me?
Did You stop loving me?
Have you stopped being the gracious and compassionate God I thought You were?
Seeking God doesn’t mean you’ll be shielded from suffering or that you’ll feel optimistic in dark times. In fact, sometimes the struggle of seeking the Lord is a kind of suffering in itself—those moments when no matter how much we seek Him, He still feels distant and His silence is overwhelming. So how did the writer of this Psalm, Asaph, get through this dark place?
I said, “Let me remember my song in the night;
let me meditate in my heart.”
Then my spirit made a diligent search…
Then I said, “I will appeal to this,
to the years of the right hand of the Most High.”
I will remember the deeds of the Lord;
yes, I will remember your wonders of old.
I will ponder all you work,
and meditate on your mighty deeds.
(Psalm 77:6, 10-12, ESV)
When we’re desperate for a shift in the midst of our suffering and darkness, remember. And remember with intentionality and diligence. Ponder. Meditate.
Asaph remembered how God helped Israel in the past. In the exodus, when the Egyptians were coming after them on one side and they were blocked by the Red Sea on the other side, it looked like their situation was hopeless. There was no good option in sight. But what did God do? He parted the sea so they could walk through it!
Your way was through the sea,
your path through the great waters;
yet your footprints were unseen.
(Psalm 77:19, ESV)
In Scripture, the sea is a recurring image of danger. The Great Shepherd’s way isn’t always beside still waters; sometimes it’s through the sea. I wish God would just stick to the still waters, but still waters aren’t always as safe as we’d like them to be. It’s far too easy to forget that it was God who led us there, to start believing that His presence is superfluous, and to start placing our trust in the water itself. It’s safer to go through the sea while clinging to God than to lie beside still waters and forget He’s there. Waters change. Still waters don’t always stay still; rough waters don’t stay rough. I’ll stake my life on the One who can navigate them both.
Your way was through the sea,
your path through the great waters;
yet your footprints were unseen.
(Psalm 77:19, ESV)
Your road led through the sea,
your pathway through the mighty waters—
a pathway no one knew was there!
(Psalm 77:19, NLT)
“Yet your footprints were unseen.”
“A pathway no one knew was there.”
Sometimes God—or the path He has for us—is hidden. Hidden doesn’t mean “not there.” We don’t seek God because He’s not with us. We seek Him so He can help us see what we couldn’t see before.
So when you can’t see any good in your situation, no hint of God’s goodness, take the time to remember what He has done in the past. You can even pull out a notebook or journal and write out ways He’s been there for you, come through for you, and surprised you in the past. And if you find that after 10 minutes you’re staring at a blank page, ask God to help you see what you couldn’t see before.
Whether God is leading us beside still waters or through the dangerous sea, whether or not we see Him, we have this hope: He is with us. And He can navigate these waters.
Lord, when Your footprints are unseen,
when You are leading me on a path no one knows is there,
help me to diligently seek You.
And whether Your way is beside still waters or through the sea,
Note: What follows is more stream of consciousness than I prefer. So if that’s not your thing, feel free to tap the little “x” in the corner. But if you’ve been struggling to hope lately and could use more of a conversation rather than a quick soundbite, this one’s for you.
2020 has been a crazy year. Wildfires. A worldwide pandemic. Murder hornets. What else could 2020 throw at us? Apparently, so much more.
In the wake of the deaths of Ahmaud Arbury, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, the world woke up to racial injustice, rage erupted, and people started taking sides. As a person of color, I found myself simultaneously navigating multiple points of view. I began awakening to areas where I need to repent while also reliving experiences of being on the receiving end of racism. And processing all of this became more complicated as I read racist comments on social media of people I once called my friends.
A couple weeks ago, I was feeling so much anger and emotional pain that my body began shutting down and I couldn’t stop crying. Even when I wasn’t consuming the news or social media, my mind continued to race. Even while I slept, my dreams (or rather, nightmares) reflected the things that consumed my mind when I was awake. It was exhausting.
There’s so much work that needs to be done. The work of repentance. The work of listening and learning. The work of fighting for the oppressed. The work of being light in the darkness.
Here’s the thing: When I spend every waking moment trying to change the world, I’m wearing myself down to the point of uselessness. I’m not a machine. None of us are.
During this season, I’ve seen a lot of people demanding we work non-stop to fight racism and injustice. I agree that if you’re wanting to disengage because you want to “go back to normal” and not have to deal with racial issues or hard things anymore, then it might be time to do some self-examination and investigate what lies underneath those thoughts. But there’s a huge difference between a desire to disengage and acknowledging our need for rest. Disengaging from necessary things isn’t healthy, but rest is.
We must work at the pace of the Kingdom. And that pace is marked by rhythms of work AND rest.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic hit hard in the US, my life was non-stop. No margin. No rest. I knew my pace was unsustainable. But I was on a treadmill and there was no way off. Then when the pandemic shut things down, the treadmill stopped and I could breathe again.
So in recent weeks I’ve revisited old entries in my journal. Back when the pandemic first entered my life. When the stillness was new and exciting and God’s voice felt loud. I didn’t know the chaos that was yet to be unleashed in the world, but God did. He was teaching me a new way to live. Training me, preparing me for what was to come. And today while the world demands unceasing labor, God is beckoning me—He’s beckoning us—to something different.
Monday, Friday 13, 2020, day 1 of social distancing
I wanted margin, and now I have it.
DEEP and SLOW.
Sunday, March 15, 2020, day 3 of social distancing
Large gatherings cancelled. Now we’re being told groups of 50 must not meet. Yet the Church is rising. Using what we have to continue sharing the gospel and disciple people. To continue to care for those who need help. To continue cultivating community despite our lack of proximity. We can’t do things the way we did before. We must be creative and Spirit-led. And people are showing grace. Production is less important. And we’re finally focusing on what matters most.
God, do a work in and through Your Church. In the ways we have strayed, bring us back. Thank You for disturbing us out of our complacency. May we be the light and salt You called us to be. Amen.
Tuesday, March 17, 2020, day 5 of social distancing
It is time for hustle and consumerism to bow down. What has been normal is being upended. So much of what we have called “normal” for so long is unhealthy, unsustainable, and incompatible with the values of the Kingdom. It’s unfortunate that it has taken a pandemic to wake us up. But I pray this shifts us and makes us better when we’re on the other side of this. May we not go back to normal. May we forge a new path. May we start truly living.
False gods are being exposed: sports, entertainment, the economy, consumerism, comfort, convenience, hustle, instant gratification…
Friday, March 20, 2020, day 8 of social distancing
Saturday, March 21, 2020, day 9 of social distancing
What is God saying to me today?
Be with Me. That is enough for today. Resist the temptation to demand more of yourself than what I have asked of you. Today, just be with Me.
Sunday, March 22, 2020, day 10 of social distancing
All this social distancing has gifted me with time—more time than I’m used to. A pace that is strange. Unhurried. Frantic moments have been replaced by moments of pause. And in these moments, I want to do something, something meaningful and significant. And when I ask God, “What should I do now?” He answers with words I don’t want to hear by my soul desperately needs:
Sit with Me.
This is meaningful work. And what could possibly be more significant that communing with the Creator and Sustainer of the cosmos? I GET to sit with Him! Why would I want to rush away from this?
Looking back at these journal entries, I’m struck by how the words feel weightier now:
How going deep and slow and sitting with God is subversive to the frantic ways of the world.
How our complacency is being disturbed.
How false gods are being exposed. (I’d add nationalism and the appearance of order to the list.)
There’s also something about these entries that make me a bit sad. We’re living in a season that’s shining a light on things that have been laying under the surface for generations. There’s so much potential for things to change and be made right. I see some beautiful, wonderful things happening, but I hoped for more. And I find myself lamenting what could have been. We missed it, I think to myself.
But then again, maybe not.
There’s so much hope in that word: maybe.
Maybe a lot of people are missing it but there’s a remnant that’s repenting and rising.
Maybe what I see with my human eyes is nothing compared to what’s happening in the unseen—something big, beautiful, and miraculous.
Maybe below the surface there are seeds of things that are good beyond our imagination that are being planted, taking root, and growing.
My husband and I lead the college and young adults ministry at our church. We love the students we get to hang out with. The majority of them are students at a Christian university where they have required chapels and dorm devotions, a required number of Bible classes regardless of the degree they’re pursuing, and a plethora of Christian teachers, leaders, and mentors speaking into their lives. It blows our minds that they STILL wake up early on Sunday mornings and come to church an hour and a half before service to be at a small group they’re not required to come to! (No judgement if you’re a college student who comes to our church but doesn’t wake up early to come to small group. Seriously, if sleep is what you need, then we want you to sleep! No guilt! However, no coffee or donuts either. Just sayin’. Well, okay, you can still get coffee in the church lobby. But the donuts—you gotta come to small group for those.) This post is for all the students who find themselves in a strong Christian community—whether it’s in a Christian university, a Christian organization on campus, or even a local church you call home (or home away from home).
There are some things I hope you learn from us and carry with you long into your future. This is one of them:
Following Godly instruction is not the same as spiritual transformation.
There’s a story in 2 Chronicles about a king named Joash.
2 Chronicles 24:2 says, “Throughout the time of the priest Jehoiada, Joash did what was right in the Lord’s sight.”
When this story is told in 2 Kings, it says, “Throughout the time the priest Jehoiada instructed him, Joash did what was right in the Lord’s sight.” (2 Kings 12:2)
Under Joash’s leadership (and Jehoida’s instruction), the people of Judah abundantly donated silver to pay for the temple of the Lord to be repaired.
“The workmen did their work, and through them the repairs progressed. They restored God’s temple to its specifications and reinforced it. When they finished, they presented the rest of the silver to the king and Jehoiada, who made articles for the Lord’s temple with it — articles for ministry and for making burnt offerings, and articles of gold and silver. They regularly offered burnt offerings in the Lord’s temple throughout Jehoiada’s life.” (2 Chronicles 24:13-14)
The people of Judah worshiped the Lord while Jehoiada the priest was alive and influencing the king. But after Jehoiada died, the story took a turn:
“However, after Jehoiada died, the rulers of Judah came and paid homage to the king. Then the king listened to them, and they abandoned the temple of the Lord, the God of their ancestors, and served the Asherah poles and the idols. So there was wrath against Judah and Jerusalem for this guilt of theirs.” (2 Chronicles 24:17-18)
Something that strikes me when I read the books of Kings and Chronicles is how incredibly gracious God is. Even when people have turned their backs on Him, He still beckons them and provides a path of repentance and restoration. In this chapter in 2 Chronicles, as soon as we see the people turn from God, we see God’s graciousness in the very next verse: “Nevertheless, he sent them prophets to bring them back to the Lord…” God isn’t quick to pour out His judgement; He’s quick to forgive and shower people with His grace…“but the people would not listen.” (2 Chronicles 24: 19)
In His graciousness, God reached out to them, but they wouldn’t listen. Ooph. And what happens next is heartbreaking:
“The Spirit of God enveloped Zechariah son of Jehoiada the priest. He stood above the people and said to them, ‘This is what God says, “Why are you transgressing the Lord’s commands so that you do not prosper? Because you have abandoned the Lord, he has abandoned you.”‘But they conspired against him and stoned him at the king’s command in the courtyard of the Lord’s temple. King Joash didn’t remember the kindness that Zechariah’s father Jehoiada had extended to him, but killed his son…” (2 Chronicles 24:20-22)
Joash didn’t just turn away from the Lord and lead the people in idolatry. He forgot about the man who invested so much into his life, the man who was responsible for all his success. And he murdered his son. Wow.
Things didn’t turn out so well for Joash in the end. (You can read about his assassination and sub-par burial in 2 Chronicles 24:25-27.) His life was a tragedy. He had so many good things going for him before his mentor died. When he had someone in his life who gave him godly instruction, he did great things. But that’s not enough. Not for Joash. Not for us.
Seek knowledge, but don’t stop there.
Strive to follow godly instruction, but don’t stop there either.
It’s easy to follow God when you’re immersed in a spiritual community where you’re regularly receiving godly teaching.
But what’s going to happen after you graduate and you’re no longer part of this community in the same way? What’s going to happen to your relationship with God when you don’t have regular chapels, small groups, or Bible studies anymore? What’s going to happen to your faith when you no longer have people checking on you, pouring into your life, and encouraging you to engage in spiritual things on a daily or weekly basis?
The challenge right now is to make sure you’re going beyond just following godly instruction. Knowledge and godly instruction without spiritual transformation is unsustainable.
If there isn’t spiritual transformation that’s happening in your life in this season while you’re immersed in godly community, then your chances of continuing to follow God when you’re no longer part of that community aren’t very high. One day you will leave this community—the people and activities that come with it. You may find yourself in another strong, Christian community. But you may also find yourself in a place where you are standing for God alone, called to be a light in a dark place. The kind of relationship with God you foster while you’re in this community will go with you. And if you foster a relationship with God that is dependent on other people and a set of activities, don’t be so sure your faith will stay intact when those people and activities are gone.
Go deep—where the Spirit of God can transform your heart, soul, and mind. In these years while you’re under the covering of a strong Christian community, learn what it means to be with God. And after you graduate, when you branch out from this community that has spiritually nourished you for the past four (or however many) years, continue. Yes, continue to seek knowledge and continue to follow godly instruction. But more than that, continue to go deep with God. Seek Him. Cling to Him. When things are hard, wrestle with Him. And allow Him to daily transform you from the inside out.
This is my prayer for you:
May you continually experience the transformation of God and become like trees planted by streams of water. And may streams of living water flow from deep within you and into the world around you. Amen.