A Year Later: On the Shore with a Towel Ready for You

This Easter, I read Jen Hatmaker’s post entitled My Saddest Good Friday in Memory . Her words broke my heart and I sat with them all weekend. I thought of her during a song at church on Easter Sunday and choked up.

First, and always first, I’m sad for Jen. This is her unique story. Yet, I could also relate to what she was describing in my own way.  A year ago, the following was my story, too:

“I’ll tell you a bit of how loss and grief and rejection will pulverize your heart and deliver you to Good Friday in pretty bad shape, or in any case, in the throes of recovery. ”

“Good Friday is about death – even a necessary death – and that makes more sense to me now than maybe ever. It speaks of a dark day and broken hearts, unmet expectations, mob mentality turned brutal.”

“I experienced betrayal from people I thought loved us.”

My reasons for why I arrived at Good Friday 2016 in pretty bad shape are varied and unique. It was a perfect storm. Any one stress or hurt on their own wouldn’t have taken me down, but gradually, I began to sink. I clung to the following quote in those dark days:

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2015/2016: I’ll never fully understand why things happened the way they did. Some of it was part of life – my best dog dying of cancer, newborn sleep deprivation, and a natural disaster. I can’t say that all of it was God’s plan. God has given us free will. Some people know the path that leads to life and light and they choose the one that leads to destruction and darkness. Thankfully, while I don’t believe that all of my loss, stress, and pain were part of His plan; I know that God can work things together for good and that He’s in the business of resurrection.

“I believe in the resurrection, so I know it will come. It always does. God wrangles victory out of actual, physical death. The cross taught us that. You can’t have anything more dead than a three-day old dead body, and yet we serve a risen Savior. New life is always possible evidently, well past the moment it makes sense to still hope for it. The empty tomb taught us that. I have enough faith to live a Friday and Saturday existence right now without fear that Sunday won’t come. It will come. I am nearly certain the way it will look will surprise me; I’m watching for the angel on the tombstone. ” – Jen Hatmaker

A year ago, I was attempting to keep my head above water.  This Easter, I realized something. I’m no longer in the water but on the shore! On Easter Sunday, I got choked up for Jen instead of myself (when you’re in a dark place you’re rather near sighted). From the shore, I’m cheering on those who have experienced loss and grief and rejection. I’m here for you and I’m saying: “keep treading water! Your feet will touch ground again. It will. I’m here! I made it. You will too. Keep breathing. I have a towel ready for you.”

Love,
R.

How to help and not hurt those who are grieving

My 96 year old grandfather died yesterday, April 4th. Yesterday, I was reminded again of the following reality when it comes to grieving: us humans (this includes me) tend to have a hard time just sitting with someone in grief. I find this to be especially true with persons of faith. Often, the uncomfortable reality of heartache is swept aside and those grieving are told to be grateful that the deceased is in a better place. While this may be true, this type of immediate response doesn’t make sense when we look at Jesus’ example surrounding the death of a friend.

John 11:35 tells us that “Jesus wept.” Why was Jesus deeply troubled and wept? Jesus wept after Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, delivered the message that Lazarus had died. Jesus knew that all would be well (he later raised Lazarus from the dead) but he still cried.

Another biblical example re: grief is found in the Old Testament. Job, who had lost family, livelihood and health, had people come to sit with him in his grief. Job 2:13 reads:

“Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.”

What a beautiful picture of literally sitting with someone in their grief!

Recapping, the following are tips that may be helpful when coming alongside someone in bereavement:

  1. Showing tears is appropriate. Jesus wept. He knew all would be well and he still wept anyways. Don’t be afraid of crying for yourself or crying as you observe the pain of others walking in grief.
  2. Pause before immediately trying to put a positive twist on loss. And if you do want to celebrate something that you’re grateful for – do just that. Use “I” statements instead of “you.” Example: “I am glad that he lived as long as he did” instead of, “you should be glad he lived as long as he did.”
  3. Whenever appropriate, just be with those who are grieving. You don’t need to know what to say. Often, the simplest words go so far like “I’m so sorry”, “I will miss him” and “praying for you.”

Unfortunately, loss and heartache are part of this journey of life. Our lives are mixed with the beautiful and brutal. When it comes to grief, we can take our cues from Jesus and from those who sat with Job. We don’t need to push the sadness of death under the rug. We can show up. We can weep. We can sit in our own grief and sit in the grief of others. And that can truly be enough.

Love,
R.

Edited to add: We all need grace in the midst of grief. Extend grace to yourself and others. While there are ways that we can do this grief thing better, we will never be perfect at it. Showing up is what matters most and seeing the heart/motives behind comments and efforts made is very important.

First time guest to church: 5 things we appreciated

In 2016, we had the experience of being first time guests at a lot of churches. If I had to guess, I’d say that we visited 20 churches. Big churches. Small churches. Middle class churches and churches where most congregation members are living in poverty. Congregations that meet in old buildings, new buildings, etc. Quite a sample platter.

A friend asked if I’d write about what some of these churches did well in regards to welcoming us as new guests. In no particular order, here are 5 things that stand out from our experience.

First up, we noticed and liked when congregation members went out of their way to greet us. Whether this was done before, during, or after the service, we remembered their efforts. The message this sent was: this is a church who doesn’t expect the pastor to do all the work of the ministry (we were only greeted by the pastor in several churches). Also, this said to us: “there’s room for more!”.

MMM. So one church gave us a bag of homemade cookies! That was a first and hasn’t been repeated since. Who wouldn’t enjoy cookies for their drive home from church? Taste buds aside, what was important was the message that it sent to us. The cookies said: this church thinks about, plans for, seeks out, and ministers to first time guests.

On another first visit, we were given a tour of the church building prior to the service. Everything from where the bathrooms are to the nursery in the basement were covered. Before the service even started, we felt comfortable and at home there.

As first time guests, one church demonstrated to us the difference between nursery volunteers who supervise vs. nursery volunteers who minister to children. (We’ve been to many a church where the nursery volunteers seem to be more interested in talking to each other than interacting with the children). At this particular church, the nursery workers got on the floor to play with our daughter to help her feel comfortable. It was evident that she was their top priority. And in addition to having a fun and safe nursery experience, she also learned about God.

For a few of the churches (read: 3 churches), we received contact from the pastor within a week or two of having visited for the first time. This took the form of one typed “standard welcome letter” and two that e-mailed us. (It was surprising to me that no church sent a personal, hand-written note. Despite his poor hand writing, this was something Derek did regularly in his ministry – which he received a lot of positive feedback for. Over the years, he was told on several occasions that the hand written note caused the guest to check out our church a second time). Whether it was a typed letter or an e-mail, we greatly appreciated hearing from the church that we had just visited. It helped us to feel noticed, appreciated, welcome. It also sent the message that the pastor/leaders don’t only focus on those who are already there but they also take the time to reach out to those not connected in, yet.

Have you recently been a first time guest in a church? Can you think of something that the church did well that helped you to feel welcome? Would love to hear about it!

 

 

Letter to the church as a millennial: set your women free!

Dear Church,

I love you. And I am disappointed. I’m disappointed that you’ve not only been responsible for historic oppression of women, but currently, so few of you have set your women free. As long as women are told to “play small” in church, we won’t see the Kingdom come on earth like it is in heaven. And we’ll continue to see less and less millennials in our pews or chairs. Millennials are good at picking up scents of oppression and running the other way. More than just attracting millennials to our churches, we want to be churches that are busy about loving God and others well. With love as the motive, here are three areas that you can work on as a congregation to help set your women free:

1)Let’s start with the “first lady” of your church, if you have one. The Pastor’s wife. Oh how Pastors’ wives need to be set free. They must not be seen as a 2-for-1 package.  Just like everyone else in the church, the pastor’s wife needs to be free to serve out of her unique gifting, passion and personality. When you do this, you will be a church that appeals to millennials. Why? By setting your pastor’s wife free to be who God created her to be, your church will be a refuge. You will be demonstrating that this is a safe place for all – even, and especially, the pastor’s wife. And you’ll be ridding your congregation from a yucky part of church history that involves sexism in how pastors’ wives have been pigeonholed and unfairly treated.

2) Women need to be free to serve in positions of leadership in the church and encouraged to do so. If we study the life of Jesus, keeping in mind historical context, we see that Jesus was a radical in his inclusion of women in his life and ministry. And women were in positions of leadership in early Christianity , building and growing the church alongside the apostle Paul. If you already are a church that supports women in leadership on paper, great! Just make sure that you demonstrate this support in practice, too. Millennials want to experience evidence to the effect, not just a statement on paper.

3) The third area of consideration is mostly for the pastors and teachers in the church. How you can help is to be intentional about using examples of women from the Bible and throughout history in Sunday School lessons, Bible Studies and in Sermons. Millennials don’t desire for biblical and historical lessons of men to be pushed aside, rather, they ask that leaders in the church remember to teach about female role models, too.

I realize that it’s a bit bold of me to write a letter to the Church on behalf of millennials. And yes, I know that I don’t speak for every millennial who is connected to a church. But I’m also not the first millennial to think of or express these thoughts. Not the first to ask for our churches to do a better job at setting women free. And I’m fairly certain that I won’t be the last.

With best regards,
a church-loving millennial

Bless your church: be an encourager

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Facebook reminded me that on this day in 2014, my status update said the following: “I believe this is universal: people are more likely to take the time to make a complaint than to go out of their way to express appreciation. Let’s change that.” The post received quite a few likes and comments in agreement. A couple of people stated that they were going to try to be better at expressing appreciation and complaining less.

The church is one place where criticism can be dished out as easily as mints and appreciation expressed sparingly. If you don’t believe me, have a heart-to-heart with any pastor or ministry leader. Whether the church is the biggest one in town or the smallest one, they all can relate in regards to criticism. Put a group of pastors together and you’ll find that they have heard it all.  And even though most of the criticisms are so very trivial (in light of eternity), they can wear church leadership down.

This is where you come in. There is hope! There is something that you can do to help offset the criticism that pastors and ministry leaders regularly face.  You can go out of your way to express appreciation. Don’t be a bystander (assuming someone else is doing the encouraging) but instead, take every opportunity to compliment, express appreciation, and to remind your pastor/leadership that you’re with them. I’m not saying that you’ll never disagree. Just make sure that your lips aren’t found to have more criticism on them than encouragement.

I don’t think that most congregation members in a church are critical and bitter. Rather, I believe (and some brief research has shown) that the opposite is true. It’s often 90% that are positive and 10% that are negative in a church. The problem is that it’s the 10% that are the most vocal. The 10% will talk (aka gossip) to anyone who will listen. And they are loud. It’s time for the 90% to rise up. To not assume that your pastor or leadership “just knows” how you feel. The 90% must balance out the 10% by taking every opportunity to express appreciation. To live out Hebrews 3:13 which calls Christians to “encourage one another daily.”

Lent is as good of time as any to start doing the things we know we ought to do. Why not take these 40 days to grow in the art of encouraging others. It may feel uncomfortable and unnatural at first, but it will get easier with time. Practice helps. What a difference we may see in our churches when the pastor(s) and leadership are encouraged regularly. What a difference the world may notice when the body of Christ is found to be generous with encouragement and careful with criticism. In this season of lent, let encouragement rise: in our own hearts, in our churches, and in our circles of influence. Each one – encourage one. Starting this day.

-R

Women in Church Leadership

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Our daughter has a set of toy people who are each of a different occupation. We weren’t sure which occupation this lady is. Teacher? Hubby suggested, “Pastor”. Yes. Yes, of course. She’s a Pastor.

As a young girl, I remember asking my dad why he was so committed to attending a Free Methodist church. His reply was, “I have 4 daughters. I want each of you to fully understand that you can serve in leadership at church, too.”

In the little and big ways, we desire for our daughter to know that she can serve in leadership and even be a pastor one day, too (should she feel called). Today that lesson comes in the form of a toy woman with the occupation of pastor.

The key to preventing bitterness

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Bitterness is easier to detect in others than it is in ourselves. You can just see and feel that someone is imprisoned by bitterness. It’s frustrating and heartbreaking.
But what about bitterness in our own hearts? We each need to be proactive with hurts and hang ups.
Those with chronic bitterness tend to be avoiders. They stuff hurt feelings and start collecting records of wrongs. They hold it in til they explode. They don’t speak directly to the source but talk to others (encouraging more imprisonment). But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Assertiveness is an effective tool for preventing bitterness. Assertiveness is not stuffing but speaking up appropriately to the individual (and to them alone). Assertiveness is kind. Assertiveness uses “I feel ___when” statements instead of “you always”. Assertiveness prevents chronic bitterness as one thing is addressed at a time.
I must mention that this message may not apply to every situation. Sometimes there are hurts that can’t be remedied by being assertive. But most of the time, it IS beyond helpful.
Ultimately love releases a life imprisoned by bitterness. And forgiveness is our parole officer. She checks in on us from time to to time as forgiveness is rarely a one-time event. But assertiveness is early intervention! Assertiveness can prevent a life from being imprisoned in the first place. And I have great news: no matter your age or background, assertiveness is a skill that can be learned and it gets easier over time with practice.
Love,
– R.