Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Measure of Ministry

Math and I have a strained relationship. We never got along all that well in high school, but he’s proved to be helpful from time to time through adulthood so I have not written him off completely. As a visual learner, I gravitate toward picture problems like bar or line graphs and pie charts. This I understood better because I could see it broken down in single dimensions. I realized recently that I tend to view my spiritual status on a bar graph too. When my prayer life seems good, my household is thriving and temptation to sin seems fairly low, I feel best positioned for ministry and service. Unfortunately, this type of “if…then…” approach to ministry doesn’t always work and certainly does not last. I can recall a time in my life when all my bar graphs were looking pretty good and I decided to graciously sacrifice my “holy self” by spending an entire day in prayer for others around me in need. Although my motives were pure, the hidden pride that prompted this endeavor could not have anticipated the events that would unfold the following day. I received heartbreaking news that day. The kind of devastation that made my prayer seem like a distant memory and in one fell swoop had nothing to give.  I will leave that story for another day, but the truth is I had not arrived at some super spiritual level; rather, I was simply measuring my relationship with God through the lens of my circumstances when it should be the other way around.

My daughter Sidney and I took a trip to Guatemala for a week this past July. My very dear friends, Blake and Christina Davis are missionaries there and serve as the directors for an organization called Students International (SI). SI’s ministry in Guatemala and other countries works by establishing long-term relationships within the communities and families for which they serve. SI consists of individual occupational ministry sites which serve as the primary catalyst for community development and cultivating relationships all for the ultimate purpose of sharing the gospel.  The most unique part of SI’s ministry is the various positions available for opportunities to join and serve such as: permanent year-round staff, semester students, summer staff, and short-term summer mission teams. Every aspect of Students International is relationship oriented. From staffing to community sites, their one common thread that is woven through this entire ministry is connecting people so that they may share the hope of Christ.  During my short time there, I was able to witness how these different aspects of the ministry work so well together. Although we did not go on an official “mission trip,” during my time there I gained a better understanding of how multi-dimensional God is and how he works through the challenges we face and not just despite them.

The first night we were there we joined Christina and Blake as they hosted their weekly dinner and bible study with their summer staff students. This special time set aside for Blake and Christina to spend with their summer staff allows them get to know each other personally and openly share their struggles each week. It was neat to see the diversity of the group. This summer there were four female college students all from different places with various backgrounds, ethnicity, and interests, but they each came to serve this little rural community in central America.  I listened as they shared their individual challenges they face as they work in their assigned sites.  From relationship issues to personal fears, they each openly shared the areas where they had concerns. As close friends with missionaries on the field, I was already aware of how internal and relational challenges do not disappear when you enter the mission field.  In fact, one could argue that those battles might even be illuminated when immersed in a new culture while relying heavily on relationships with people whom you’ve only recently met.  This particular aspect of this ministry allows the students and staff a unique opportunity to grow in these areas.  Through this I’ve learned that immersion is not only the most effective way to learn a language and a culture, but also the most effective way to learn about ourselves.  Just like in life, the pain we experience through these challenges shouldn’t be viewed as an inconvenient hurdle we must jump over quickly so we can get back to easy living; rather, it could be a critical part of our growth that we must intentionally walk through while continuing to serve the Lord.

One of the things SI teaches their students is that we all have areas of poverty in our lives. We may enter the ministry or mission field with this superhero mentality of “I have something someone else needs” when we should simply empty our vessels of prior expectations or personal agendas. God always has a plan and it doesn’t change as we exit a familiar setting into a foreign one.  Micah 6:8 says that we should do good, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. There is no special addendum to his word in reference to a mission trip. He knows us better than we know ourselves so we can trust that he has every detail orchestrated for his glory, but for our benefit.  So we can strap on our backpacks full of love, gratitude, and mercy along with our brokenness, fear, and flaws knowing that he can use it all and teach us through it as we humbly serve him. We must remember that God may not place us in particular position of service solely for one purpose. We serve a very big God who can use us in the lives of those we serve alongside just as much as those we are actually serving.  In the past I’ve resisted taking a trip or volunteering to serve for various reasons, but anytime I say “yes” I’m always enlightened or impacted in a profound way. We do not need to wait until our bar graphs line up perfectly and we feel that we’ve reached a spiritual peak to be used by God. He knows all the intricacies of our brokenness and individual circumstances, but he is faithful to use our brothers and sisters in Christ to help us learn more about him as we accept these unique opportunities in ministry as we draw near to Him.

To Learn more about Students International and how you can support this wonderful ministry visit http://stint.com/. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Surrender Bravely

I’ve never been able to find certain places on the map. You know, those far away exotic countries like Courage, Bravery, Confidence, or Adventure. It’s all fine and good for the superstars on TV or the great Bible heroes, but I see them and think, “yeah, that will never be me.” Most likely you will find me in a little hidden town called Fearville at 1505 Worry Ln. enjoying a nice big bowl of anxiety for breakfast. This is where I reside. This is where life makes sense. A friend recently said that bravery isn’t the opposite of fear; rather, it is overcoming something you are afraid of despite the fear. Her statement stuck with me. I’ve never considered myself to be brave at all, but I have definitely pushed my way through some moments of uncertainty, so maybe it isn’t so far from home.

Throughout my teen years and on into adulthood, I’ve walked through many seasons of extreme anxiety. As a teen, my fears were a bit more irrational than they are now. I conjured up all sorts of scenarios in my mind of someone breaking in our house and hurting me in some way. Starting at age fourteen I went through two years of severe paranoia crippling my very existence and making life difficult for me and my parents. I could not stay home alone and could not sleep in my own room most nights.  After 2 years of this, I was exhausted. I remember being at church one Sunday night and feeling the Holy Spirit move in my heart telling me I had to let go. I had to put my trust in God. That night I surrendered. I was already a child of God, but this was an important point of spiritual growth for me. I let go of trying to maintain control and began to walk by faith instead of in fear.  I didn’t have a false sense of security that God would protect me from all harm. I had seen enough news to know that there were no guarantees.  I had to accept that whatever danger might be in store for me, I still belong to God and I had to rest in Him no matter what happened to me. 

As an adult, I’ve struggled through several periods of anxiety. Having a family has given me full spectrum of reasons to worry, from the safety and well-being of my husband and children to the burden of financial strain. I know others have experienced much worse, but I feel like I’ve had a sufficient taste.  Recently I went through a season gripped with fear that far surpassed my previous concerns. I felt this heavy burden of the reality that my kids may not all accept Jesus as their savior or will turn away from Him at some point.  I became overwhelmed with the thought of them being deceived by this world or a different belief system. No matter how much I invest in them teaching them the love and grace of God through Jesus, they may still come to reject Him. I know of several people who grew up learning the truth some of which may have even walked an aisle as a child, but they later rejected Him and now believe in something else. Only God knows for sure whether a person belongs to him, but I couldn’t imagine living life without this assurance if a child of mine strays from their faith.  Contemplating this I was caught in an emotional whirlwind of anger and sadness as I considered the possible outcomes of my kids’ future.  How will I handle not knowing where their faith will eventually rest? I love them and do not want them to suffer the consequences of their sin; sin that has already been paid for through Christ’s death on the cross. Not only is it the very best free gift that I so desperately want them all to accept, but it is also the foundation on which I long to see them build their entire lives. I do not want them to just know God and accept Him, but I want them to love Him, live for Him and if necessary, die for Him. It is not because I want my children to follow some family tradition or carry on a legacy, but for the fact that I know it IS the truth. Jesus IS our only hope.

After several weeks of feeling the heavy weight of this unrest, the Lord graciously reminded me of his truth that has given me some peace. God created not just my children but all children; the entire world, knowing and planning to save it through his son Jesus and knowing that only some would accept him. My greatest fear for my child may be the thought of them suffering the consequences for their sin, but by comparison, this means that the thing that I fear the most is the very thing God willingly and purposefully did to his own son so that He might save some. Jesus DID endure the wrath of God for the sins of the entire world and it is available for everyone.  I have had to rest in fact that THIS may be the only thing I can know for sure. I may not have all the answers to my questions, nor am I able to control the future. What I do know is that I have given MY life to Him and he has called me to raise my kids to believe in Him too. As I continue to point them to truth for as long as I live, I will do my best to walk in obedience and trust God with the results.

No matter what challenges or fears I face in this life, as a child of God what choice do I have but to trust Him with EVERYTHING….my success AND my failure… my sin, my pain, my fear- they are ALL His to use for His purposes and glory. As difficult as it may be, I must trust God with all of this for my kids as well… their failure, their success, their sin, and yes even their unbelief.  My kids were God’s before they were mine. They are His creation and their dad and I dedicated each one of them to Him. So as I spend my days guiding them in truth, I will remember what my friend said about the word bravery.  Knowing God doesn’t mean all fears vanish, so I must surrender bravely to Him and his plan even if I don’t know it, don’t understand it, or don’t like it. He is God. I am not. But I am His.
"Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding, but in all your ways submit to Him and He will make your paths straight" Proverbs 3:5

Monday, August 29, 2016

Messy Mercy and Radical Risky Grace

As a believer in Christ, the issue of setting boundaries within relationships has often eluded me. I've always thought since God's love for us knows no bounds, neither should mine. Not to say our sin has no consequences, but simply that we cannot out-sin his mercy and grace. Knowing this, we try to be Christ -like in every way by loving all people unconditionally regardless of how difficult and unpleasant they may be. We do this because we know that God has offered us forgiveness and mercy and we want to make that available to others as well. However, the list of broken relationships within the family of God keeps getting longer. From marriages that finally dissolve after months of counselling to acquaintances that never stood a chance at real friendship, some measure of broken trust severs all hope of a lasting unity.  We become unable to maintain the relationships due to a person’s unwillingness to change certain behaviors. With this reality in mind, I’m beginning to believe we shouldn't confuse Christ-likeness with God-likeness. Although we should take every opportunity to show God’s love to all people, there are areas in which we are limited in our flawed state of humanity. Many of us struggle in the area of offering mercy and grace to difficult people around us; fellow believers and non-believers alike. When we compare the difference between God's response to such fractious individuals and our response to them, we come to a deeper understanding of God's astounding mercy and His radical grace that far surpasses our human ability. It is only then that we are reminded that we are in just as much need of his mercy and grace as anyone else. 

To make this comparison, we must first take a closer look at how we react and respond to difficult people in our lives. When face to face in the heat of conflict, we may feel compelled to strongly inform them of how annoying, ignorant, self-serving, arrogant, or (fill in the ______) they are and why they should change.  While some people feel comfortable and justified with lashing out correction or spouting deserved criticism (directly or indirectly), most people do not. The majority of us refrain in the interest of taking the high road or simply the lack of time or energy. Most of us hold our tongue and do our best to distance from such a person if and when possible. The thought of attempting a civil and meaningful conversation rarely surfaces in the heat of the moment.  When those negative attributes are actively displayed, we quickly look for the exits.  Self-preservation takes the driver's seat and we are out. Even if we did put forth the effort, it's doubtful that our motive would be sincere.  Most likely it would be self-motivated. Our attitude is usually "You need to change so that I'm more comfortable" when maybe it should be "you need to change so that you can be more content and have a more meaningful life." But let's face it, we just don't have that much patience to put forth that kind of effort for every irritating or narcissistic person that crosses our path. We think by letting it go and fleeing the scene, we're humbly showing them mercy as a "good Christian" should.  We say, "oh well, it's just the way they are"....translation-"to hell with them!" It's easier to just let it go and get away as quickly as possible than to stick around and to find out the “why” behind their behavior. It's just too messy! 

We do, however have to choose these battles wisely and decide the proper recourse for each situation.  Our communication with a close relative may differ greatly from a complete stranger, but no matter what, there are boundaries for which we allow a person's toxicity into our lives.  We are human and we have limits. I believe we can maintain our message of God’s love and mercy and even attempt to have a positive impact on their lives while still establishing an understanding that their unwillingness to change behavior may result in limited or broken relationship.  We distance ourselves because maintaining a close relationship would require extreme selflessness and a certain level of risk. This would be extending far beyond the point of mercy and offering grace as well - a gift which is wildly undeserved. Grace is trickier. The idea of offering a person like this a gift of trust, closeness, and community seems absurd. Trust must be earned. If we don't feel like someone is safe, we won't be vulnerable with them. We are pretty apprehensive when it comes to cultivating a meaningful relationship with people we like, much less those we find abhorrent. What if they betray me? What if they make promises they cannot keep? They need to first prove worthy of my relationship. For the difficult person in our lives, we can't imagine pouring out so much of ourselves for them. It's just too risky.

Each time he said, "My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness." So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. 2 Corinthians 12:9

Imagine for a moment if every time you are faced with an impossible person whose behavior you do not understand, you gave this person a pass, but turned to your innocent son or daughter and took all your anger and frustration out on them. Whaaaat??!! Are you kidding me?! That’s crazy! I know, it sounds preposterous, right? What if the only way to save such a person from themselves was to crush and torture your own flesh and blood to the point of death? Would that not be the most ridiculous and astounding response?  Now lets take it one step further.  Imagine after sacrificing the life of your own child for the actions of someone else, you actually offered to let this person have a place in your family with full rights to your inheritance as long as they simply believe and accept that what you say is true. Ha!!! Now you must be joking! There is NO way!!! You would say. That’s radical!!

But THIS is precisely what God has done for us all!

The creator of the universe loved the world SO MUCH that he allowed HIS own perfect son to be crushed by the most severe form of torture to death not only to offer mercy to a flawed race of selfish, arrogant people, but to also offer the free gift of adoption into his royal family and an eternal inheritance of His heavenly kingdom. He KNOWS how much we will continue to screw up and betray him. He KNOWS we will scoff at his mercy and squander his grace. He DOES NOT wait for us to prove anything to him or earn his mercy. There is NO expiration date on his grace. The only requirement is that we admit our need for Him and believe.  His mercy is new every morning and the gift of a loving relationship is free and FOREVER. When we truly grasp the magnitude of what God did for us through Christ and how it extends beyond all human comprehension, we are reminded that we are just as much in need of this level of mercy and grace as any other “despicable” human being in this world.  His astounding mercy and radical grace humbles us to the realization of our own imperfection. We are all flawed with prideful, selfish arrogance.  There is no special category of perfect people in which we reside. There is us and there is God and He alone has offered us all mercy for our mess and grace despite the risks through a personal, intimate relationship with Jesus Christ.