Thursday, October 25, 2012

I Love Church


Our church is struggling.  Like really struggling.  Like Can't-pay-bills-or-people struggling.  And there is a part of me that hesitates to say that because no one likes to talk about money or the lack thereof.  It makes people nervous when you say things like that.  But when a church can't pay its staff, the staff struggles, too.  So here we are, me and Jake, in the midst of this thing, this depressing thing, fighting off thoughts of doubt and frustration.  We are worried for our church families.  We are worried about the community that God has placed us in.  We are worried that more people might leave. And on the real, personal side of things, we are worried that we might not keep our jobs.   And we love our church and our church family.  And we are just at the beginning of things.  We have only been here a year.  Nothing has really happened yet.  No God-ordained growth explosions.  No God-sized miracles.  Just the day-to-day struggle of a sweet pastor with health problems, dwindling finances, an unfinished building, minimal resources, and the twinge of abandonment that I feel every time another family leaves.  And there have been blessings.  Kids have been saved, prayers have been answered, spiritual growth has taken place.  But these things are often overshadowed by the gray skies of doubt and uncertainty.

The thing I have noticed most about our most recent struggles, though, is that they seem to be front and center in all of our hearts and minds.  They are the thing we think about, talk about, pray about.  I have spent entire worship services with my hands raised high, not knowing how to pray, but just saying "We need you, God".  And we do.  Because this thing is overwhelming.  I don't even know what to pray for anymore.  And the trouble has become the focus.  And I hate this.

Several Sundays ago, I saw a group of elementary aged kids riding their bikes in our church parking lot.  Our church is located in a strip mall in a residential area.  The neighborhood kids love to use the parking lot for scooters, rip sticks, and skateboards.  I walked outside, introduced myself to the kids as a children's pastor, and told them they should come back sometime.  They looked at me like I was crazy and rode off.  Throughout the week that followed, though, I became increasingly convicted about my focus.  I have been so focused on the problems that I have neglected my purpose.  I am still studying and teaching kids each Sunday, but my concern for people has just been kind of lying dormant.  Not dead, just buried underneath layers of worry and frustration.  So I made the decision that I was going to spend some time on Saturday going into the neighborhood and talking to people.  Getting face-to-face with real, actual people that have real problems and need Jesus.  And I invited friends to go with me.  Last Saturday afternoon, we went to a local park with little invitation cards I had quickly printed up.  We talked to a few families.  One man professed to be Mormon.  One woman did not speak English.  But the third, the last woman, was open.  She is looking for a church.  She is new to the area, and she wants a place that has a thriving children's ministry.  We had a great conversation, and we were excited at the possibility that she might come.  I spied another group of kids on bikes, and I gave them invitations as well.  They told me that we had already met in the church parking lot the week before, and I was happy to see them again.  And you know what?  On Sunday morning, those kids came.  Five of them.  Five sweet little kids woke up early and rode their scooters and bikes to church.  I couldn't believe it.  I gave them visitor cards and sent them home to have their parents fill them out.  They promptly returned with parent signatures.  They sat with me in the service, and they participated in the lesson and small groups time.  And when the service was over, they gave me hugs and promised they'd be back.  And I was instantly reminded about why I do what I do.  Because there are kids who want to come to church.  They want to know about Jesus and how He wants to be involved in their day-to-day.  There is a gospel that can change the course of their lives.  And that is bigger and greater than financial problems and church problems and past due paychecks.  And the church is not this building that we can't really afford.  It is not the budget.  Our church is made up of people.  People that I love.  People that are all feeling the same thing, but we still show up because we trust God and whatever it is He is doing here.  And we have a job to do.  We have a gospel to preach.  We have people to reach.  We have a God that longs to be glorified for the way He works and provides. And I pray that that is where our focus shifts.  To Him.  To people.  And to remind me, I am carrying with me gifts that were given by a couple of those sweet visitor girls.  Made with pencils and crayons and glue and affection for a Children's Pastor they didn't even know, a picture of the two of them, connected by a heart that says these three words "I love church".  I do, too, girls.  I do, too.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Place Where There is No Grace

I remember the night I learned this lesson.  I remember where I was.  I remember the tears I cried when it hit me.  I remember getting on the phone and calling a few close friends and family to tell them about it.  I remember the kindness they showed me by not calling me crazy and hanging up.  And the lesson is simple, but I have repeated it to myself in the worst of times.

Standing in the kitchen of my little house in Portland, Tennessee.  That's where I was.  The kids had gone to bed, and I was all alone rinsing dishes and loading the dishwasher. I was listening to one of my favorite Bible teachers, Chip Ingram, on my iPod.  My husband was gone, living at his parents' house, and I had no idea if or when he would return.  When I thought about my life and my marriage, I remember having thoughts like I can't keep doing this.  My marriage was hard.  My husband was angry, and I had grown to match him in his anger.  And because I am a planner, I liked to think of the future and try to see something other than the problems of the present.  But every time I tried, I just came back to the same old thought.

I can't do this another six months.  
I can't do this another six weeks.   
I probably can't even do this another six days.

My strength was failing and my optimism was gone.  But even still, in my exhaustion, I was listening to Chip Ingram preach the truth, and I hoped that something he said would apply to me.  I needed something to resonate.  And something did.  I can't tell you the verses he used.  I really can't.  I wasn't taking notes.  I was just washing dishes.  And I listened as he spoke, and I heard him echo the thoughts that had been going through my mind.  He talked about the job that you feel like you can't continue.  The relationship that feels too difficult.  And he talked about how the grass always looks greener on the other side, and how intelligent, rational adults can make horrible decisions because they are always looking for something better.  For someone better.  And then he said the thing that changed my thinking.  The thing that gave me strength.  He said that when you face things that seem too hard, when you look down the road and you can't imagining having to deal with the frustration for another day, you should remember this.

There is no grace in hypothetical situations.

And it was just what I needed to hear.  It was not poetic, but it felt profound.  I didn't need to look forward and try to figure out how I was going to make it through the next six months or six weeks or six days because I was not living those yet.  And grace comes when you need it.  Not before.  Not after.  Right on time.  And I knew that it was coming.  I knew that God's grace would be sufficient.  But I wanted it early.  I wanted to know that there would be plenty down the road.  I couldn't see continuing the journey without the abundance of grace that I would need to complete it.  But that's not the way it works.  And my mind went back to the Old Testament, to the story of the Israelites and their daily manna.  Had I been there, I feel certain I would have tried to store it up.  I am faithless like that.  But seriously, if I looked around at an empty desert, my empty pockets, and a ground covered with bread, I think I would have tried to keep some for later.  Probably even several times, hoping that it might turn out differently than before.  But there is no grace in the unknown.  There is no grace in the future.  Not yet.  There will be grace when we encounter hard things.  There will be grace when we need it.

I don't have too many hard things going on right now.  I have problems, of course.  We would like to have a baby, but we are nine months into trying and I am not pregnant.  Our church is struggling financially. My car needs repairs.  These are small things, but there is still grace.  And I know that harder things will come, and I will need grace to continue and persevere through them.  But I know that as I write this, most of us have something that we think we just can't keep up.  A life situation that we have lost the strength to deal with.  A difficult marriage.  An unfulfilling job.  An addiction we can't shake.  A badly behaved child.  An empty bank account.  An empty womb.  And we think that we can't keep going.  We can't work through it.  Something has got to give.  But when God says that His grace is sufficient, it is.  It really is.  And it will be sufficient tomorrow, too.  Just keep going.  Don't give up.  Don't accept defeat.  The grace you need to handle it all is coming.  I promise.

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