When Church Hurts

I know most of my readers are church folks.  And anyone who’s been a part of a church for very long knows that eventually hurtful things happen in a place that is assumed safe and caring.  Why?  Because everyone in the church is flawed, broken and in need of the same transformation as you and me.

As a pastor’s wife of 40 years I have experienced what one man calls both “the beauty and the brokenness of the church.”  Sometimes the brokenness comes for the unexpected reason that we Christians too often and too quickly think we get things “right.”

You can read more of my story here.

It’s an honest story.  A sad story.  But a story where I hope you’ll see redemption and hope.

Because my story, like yours, includes God.

I would love to hear your feedback on this one.

Jenny’s Stubborn Darkness

Earlier this week I was on the phone with Jenny (not her real name). She’s going through some severe trials. Wave after wave of difficulties have been bearing down on her.

She admitted to me that the primary reason why she continues to trudge through each day is because she doesn’t want to be a burden to her husband. His own struggles would only be multiplied by her sadness, questions and requests for him to help her. She asked for prayer, saying she didn’t know how much longer she could keep going without falling apart.

Have you been there?  Have you felt at times that your needs are going unmet because you have to keep your spouse, children, family members or friends in mind? Do you remember how alone you felt? How much energy was required to do simple tasks? How desperately you longed for someone to think as much about you as you were about them? The nagging hesitance to hope things would get better because you couldn’t bear yet more disappointment if nothing changed?

Jenny is probably experiencing with author Ed Welch calls the “stubborn darkness” of depression. I know that stubbornness. And at least two of my friends are in the middle of it now, including Jenny.

Does God expect us to obey Him and do what’s right in the midst of trials and suffering?

I reminded Jenny yesterday that while I’ve experienced the hopelessness and go-through-the-motions way of living in which she is currently, it’s more important to remember that Jesus is empathizing and praying for her. In the garden He asked God to not make Him go to the cross unless there was no other way. “Let this cup pass from me,” He asked.

And what cup was that? Scripture tells us the cup was filled with the wrath of God (see Ps 75:8, John 18:11, Matthew 20:22, Revelation 14:9). Jesus was fully God but also fully human, just like you and I. He didn’t want to suffer an agonizing, humiliating death by hanging naked on a cross while cynics mocked and Satan laughed. He wasn’t a stoic who kept a stiff upper lip. No, he was a man with flesh and blood, temptations and grief, emotions and desires.

But in His darkest hour He, the God Man, elevated what was right over what He felt. “Not my will but yours” was His conclusion to a heart and mind so filled with agony that his sweat became blood.

Jenny knows that while she feels like crawling into a ball and retreating behind closed doors, she can’t. There’s laundry to do and lunch to make. Errands to run, a frig to clean out, and dust bunnies to sweep up. Kids to get up for and an upcoming birthday party to think about.

Because her suffering Savior thought of her during His darkest hours, she has His indwelling power to do the same.

The thing is, I’ve watched her do it for years. When stubborn darkness refused to lift and bad news rolled in like thick fog into her world, she demonstrated maturity and strength beyond any woman’s ability. Yes, a lot of her motivation was, like now, to not “be a burden to her husband.” I don’t know about you, but in my life that doesn’t last long. I may start out  wanting to respond well to a hard situation to help and support Benny, but before long complaining and “somebody take care of me” attitudes creep in (or in some cases fly out of my heart and mouth). Only God can help a hurting person to continue to incarnate the love, sacrifice and service of Christ when circumstances tempt him or her to crawl into that ball of pain.

I told Jenny that because of the grace I’ve observed in her over the years, I was confident God would continue to help her to be like Him. To get up in the morning when she wanted to pull the covers over her head and pretend she wasn’t needed. To referee sibling arguments when she wanted to tell the kids their bickering was just stupid compared to what she’s going through. To love a man who doesn’t seem as focused on her as she is on him. And to keep pursuing God when she’s wondering if more disappointment at His sovereign plan is coming.

Jenny, thank you for trusting God through stubborn darkness. For being honest about your struggles and pain without using them as an excuse to be irresponsible. For serving others when you would have loved being served; reaching out when you could have pulled away; worshiping instead of charging God; being patient when friends comments are insensitive rather than helpful; and, most of all, growing in godliness rather than becoming bitter and self-absorbed. And for being brutally honest about your sadness, temptations, sinful reactions and struggles in the process.

God has been busy in your life and I’m grateful to have watched Him sustain you through the “many dangers, toils and snares that have already come.” The gospel has been on display in your life and I’m confident that “grace has brought you safe thus far, and grace will lead you home.”

I love you, my friend.

P.S.  You can find Ed Welch’s helpful book, Depression: Looking Up From a Stubborn Darkness here.

What is the Church to You?

Gretta was a self-made woman. She was raised by a single mom who had to sometimes work two jobs to support the family. As the oldest of the three, Gretta was responsible at a young age for her siblings. Her upbringing prepared her to be competent and capable.

She went to college on an academic scholarship and graduated with a Marketing degree. Before long, Gretta was working for a large company making good money; far more than her mother ever made. She climbed the corporate ladder while making her way through several relationships until she and Chad married. Sadly, his substance abuse and unwillingness to be faithful to Gretta resulted in a dicey divorce that left her more committed than ever to rely on no one…but herself. Being raised in the church provided her with some security that God cared. But a demanding schedule didn’t allow time for the church thing.

Mostly because she thought of the church as a building decent people should go to once a week or so.

One of the often overlooked aspects of living a Christian life of costly obedience to God is the place the church holds in the equation. Last Sunday Benny preached a message called, “The Church and the Purposes of God.” In it he provided a flyover of the history of God’s relationship with His people that illustrated the theme of his sermon: “God’s eternal purpose is to dwell among a people He has made for His own.” From the Garden through the Old Testament to the time of Christ until He returns to take His chosen to the city He is preparing for us, God has always had a people of His very own. He still does.

The church isn’t a pretty building with a white steeple; an institution; a place people go to silence their conscience or pay God off by putting money in the offering; a social club or Sunday morning ritual. The church is a gathering of beloved followers of the only God who stooped down to die so we could know Him. It’s not an organization but an organism. Alive. Vibrant. Oozing with life, mentoring, service, tears, compassion, wrongdoing, forgiveness, training in godliness, gift deployment and doing life together. And it’s comprised of flawed and broken people like Gretta.

The problem is Gretta doesn’t know she needs the church and it needs her. She needs a place where she can be regularly taught that Jesus Christ didn’t just come down to save and forgive, but resides within to help and sustain. A place she can use her many gifts to help, encourage and mentor others. A spiritual family she can laugh and cry with; brothers and sisters to help bear the burden of sadness over the divorce and check to see how she’s doing after an exhausting business trip. Where friends can show her that loyalty and faithfulness still happen. Where children can sit in a lap she has no hope of filling with someone who looks like her. And where she can risk being open with her temptations to sin with a married man who is giving her the attention for which she longs — but thinks she’s too “used” to get from a stand up guy who probably isn’t out there anyway.

You can be a Christian and not be a part of a church, just like you can be a Christian and not do other things the Bible requires. Once we experience saving faith and have been declared not guilty by God, nothing will separate us from His love. Yet to allow anything (schedule, past negative experiences, flawed fellow believers, work, sleep, kids sports, leisure) to prevent us from consistent involvement in the place God has chosen as a primary means of our growth and connection to other Christians is simply near sighted.

My involvement in Redeemer Church isn’t because my husband is the pastor. Okay, I’ll admit it. There have been numerous times over the years when I would have skipped a meeting or event (or two, or three, or twenty) if pride in my reputation hadn’t made me think my absence might have reflected negatively on my husband. But everyone, not just pastors wives, has to make costly decisions to choose time with the people of God over other things, just like we also have to choose going to work or doing laundry or keeping a dentist appointment when we don’t feel like it.

Going on Sunday mornings, to weekly Community Groups, to picnics and baby showers and lunch after the meeting and worship nights with Redeemer Church is a priority to me because I’m God’s daughter, not because I’m Benny’s wife. It’s also because God has chosen to dwell among His people when the church gathers.

Yes, He lives in each of us individually and we could spiritually survive on a desert island.

But we were made to live in community where love, trust, forgiveness, instruction, worship, service and persevering love gives us the opportunity to be like the triune God who Himself lives in constant fellowship as Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. If God doesn’t live in isolation, why should Gretta?  Or me? Or you?

Author and pastor Paul Tripp says: “The Bible speaks of Christian experience as deeply and expansively and comprehensively relational. We were not hardwired to live this Christian experience by ourselves.  If you are going to grow and be the instrument of growth in others, you have to understand that I move toward you not because I trust you, but knowing we’re both broken and this is potentially messy. I move toward you because there is hope for us because of the cross.”

Costly obedience means being willing to agree with God that living in community is His wise plan. It’s a pricey plan. It requires me to say no to autonomy and hiding my sin; to sleep or Sunday morning leisure; and to thinking I can figure out life for myself rather than humbly soliciting the counsel, correction, assessment and friendship of others.

You see, for forty years I’ve been a part of churches where God has used the teaching and relationships to change me. Otherwise, I am Gretta. Without an understanding of what the Bible teaches about the church, I would only selectively open my life and heart to others. I would choose to work through my hurts and temptations alone, opening my heart to anyone only after I’ve come to a solution. I would choose self-reliance over healthy interdependence on other flawed sinners any day if God hadn’t given me a vision for His church.

Costly obedience, though, means I choose to live in community with others. Even when I don’t feel like it.

No Chickens For Me

I’m continuing the series When Obedience to God is Costly this week. Thanks for joining in!

When Benny and I had kids we knew we wanted to bring both the blessings and lessons of growing up into our new family. All four of our parents were believers who did their best to raise good kids. Benny’s parents may have felt like failures when their adolescent son ended up with a rap sheet that landed him on three years probation. My parents, however, didn’t know that their outwardly compliant and obedient daughter’s heart was just as motivationally compromising as kids like Benny who did “bad” things.

Benny and I wrongly and immaturely thought our worldly ways might be directly traced back to parenting. Both sets of our parents admitted mistakes on their part and parenting does matter. But the main reason why we were compromisers is because we weren’t governing our own sinful desires and decisions, which can’t be blamed on Dad and Mom.

When our kids started entering the teen years and we saw some of the same scary temptations and choices we experienced at their age, we were confused. We thought a closer adherence to biblical parenting practices, including helping our kids deal with things at a heart level rather than focusing on mere outward behavior, would protect them from the foolish and selfish choices of their parents.

We were wrong. Gratefully, our teens who did some of the same things as we did are now grown ups who love God and are attempting to raise their children to love Him, too. Of course, we still have a stray “Mom and Dad, did I ever tell you about the time I…” conversations, but unless a big one is still coming no one broke into houses or stole cars like their dad. Yet some of what they walked through was heartbreaking and forced us to admit our wrong “if we do this, God will do that” thinking.

Even after decades of detecting the danger of too-closely relating what we do to what only God can do (like soften, monitor and change a child’s heart!) I still subtly expect that obeying God should result in tangible blessings.

Take the sale of our house. Those of you who have visited this blog over the past year know that Benny starting a new church (which would require the second move in two years) at our age wasn’t on my bucket list. The area where Redeemer Church is now located isn’t where I would prefer to live. Over the past year, though, God has faithfully moved my heart to not just accept that we will have to move, but to actually look forward to it!

As we started researching affordable housing there, my heart was tested. One of the wonderful things about Lake Nona, Florida is that for years it was nothing but farmland. I hoped we would be able to have a roomy piece of property on a country road where I could have a nice garden, room for the grandchildren to run and (shhhh, don’t tell Benny) maybe another dog and some chickens. Oh, and a house of some kind. The rest of the area, however, is so new that most of the communities are filled with cookie cutter houses close enough to see your neighbors brushing their teeth — and where the cops would be called if you have chickens.

My silent whining started bothering me. Why did I think that my willingness to obey the Lord; to bless my husband by willingly doing the hard thing of starting all over in a new church; to leave a home I’ve come to love in the two years since we bought it; and to all this “at my age” would result in a garden and running room for little ones?

Obeying God led Jesus down a road of astounding joys (imagine the thrill of seeing Lazarus walk out of the tomb that day!) and agonizing suffering as He took our place on the cross. As those for whom He died to make us like Him, what makes us think the life He purchased would not include similarly sacrificial obedience to the Father?

Elizabeth Elliot said, “God is God. Because He is God, He is worthy of my trust and obedience. I will find rest nowhere but in His holy will, a will that is unspeakably beyond my largest notions of what He is up to.”

I’m asking myself if my change of heart had more to do with thinking another dog and a treehouse for the grandchildren was in my future rather than the pure joy of obeying God?

It’s looking more like I’ll be keeping the blinds closed to avoid watching my neighbor brush their teeth. Until His will is clear, I’m asking Him to help me to find fresh pleasure in the comparitively small sacrifices of following the One who laid down His very life for me.

P.S.  On Friday we learned our home of choice had a contract accepted that very morning. The road to a new home continues — and the test is revealing some not-so-good things in my heart. I’ll keep you posted.

Wednesday Afternoon Obedience

Obeying God is clear in many situations. We know that adultery, gossip, jealousy, robbery, lust and murder are wrong because the Bible tells us so. When the temptation to sexually admire or actually picture ourselves with someone, to shoplift, or to slander a friend with unkind words comes — even if unconfessed sin has silenced or dulled our conscience — the Bible speaks loudly against such things. But what happens when obeying God just isn’t that clear or potentially scandalous?



Throughout my Christian life I’ve been guilty of elevating obedience in the heroic to the neglect of the ordinary. While marveling at how a friend can continue to serve others through cancer or forgive an unfaithful spouse, I forget that God is requiring me to do what is right, day after boring day. Like when:

  • I’m tempted to bark complaints to Benny when he does something irritating or insensitive.
  • My day is interrupted with unexpected things that require me to adjust my plans.
  • Something I did for someone I love goes unappreciated.
  • A conversation turns to accusations rather than inquiring questions about something I did or said.
  • I’m too tired to do what needs to be done.
  • Concerns about a family member or friend morphs into anxiety or fear that tempts me to doubt God’s love, faithfulness or provision.

I’ve been thinking about Jesus.  Before He had healed anyone, cast out a single demon, raised people from the dead or fed thousands with a measly amount of food His Father boldly declared His pleasure over His Son. Jesus was a baby, then a toddler; a boy and then a man. Before He did anything spectacular He did the normal things of life like obey His parents and work hard in his dad’s carpentry business (we assume). In the day-in-day-out happenings of life He honored God one choice at a time.

And because He died and sent His spirit to reside within us, we have the power to do the same.

What happens with obeying God is unclear? When everything in us wants to do wrong even when we know it’s wrong (like last week when I arrogantly fussed at Benny for not doing something I wanted him to do)? When His will isn’t clearly written on the pages of scripture or two Christians interpret what is said differently? Or when doing right is just beyond our strength and we feel powerless to do anything but sin?

At times like this we have to remember Jesus…again. He lived a perfect, sinless life. He always chose to do what’s right. He never lied or was lazy or lusted or selfishly fussed at a family member. And those of us who are Christians have been credited with His perfect life in exchange for our sinful choices. He has given us everything we need “for life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3)  — including the ability to obey Him in things big and small.

And when we fail, there is a throne of grace to which we can confidently run “for mercy and help in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). That throne of grace is inhabited by the very One who made a way for us to know His will and then to receive forgiveness when we knowingly or ignorantly refuse it.

I don’t know about you but the costs of following and obeying God hit me right where I live on Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon and Saturday morning. When I’m discouraged, weary, self-centered, worried or concerned about what others think of me. When I want to be helped or served and others have needs, too. When I have no thought to kill — but am experiencing the anger that Jesus said would incur the same judgement (Matthew 5:21-22).

Whether obedience is clear or muddy, the throne is always open. And the needy who run there will be met with mercy.

I am needy. Are you?

When Basketball Isn’t God’s Will

Right from my personal notebook.

Right from my personal notebook.

I’m continuing a series I started on Monday called When Obedience is Costly. Yesterday I mentioned I would elaborate on how saying yes to something means saying no to other things. Obedience to God is costly because sometimes saying ‘yes’ just isn’t the right thing to do, even if the choice is one we greatly desire.

Our kids all played basketball. This biased mom thinks they were each pretty good. As would be expected, though, the son who topped out at 6’5″ was a particularly welcome addition to his teams. His high school coach had connections at a local university and offered to arrange a walk-on tryout for Jesse. While he had no guarantees of making the team, Benny wisely advised our son to walk through the decision-making process prior to the tryout. After all, being offered a spot on a team could too easily color his decision after the fact. (Benny and I have learned the hard way that most decisions should be anticipated before rather than during emotionally charged situations.)

We went to dinner one night to talk things through. Benny explained the principle above and encouraged Jesse to make a list of the things he would be saying ‘no’ to if he said ‘yes’ to playing for the University of Central Florida. Jesse was understandably intrigued by the possibility of playing college ball. What athlete wouldn’t be? And, honestly, our family would have been his biggest fans if that was God’s plan.

Jesse left that evening knowing he had a formidable assignment from Dad. He had to prayerfully and practically consider all the situations and relationships that would be affected by the rigors of collegiate sports. When we got back together several days later to talk, Jesse soberly told us he thought he should tell his coach not to schedule the tryout. A part of him desperately wanted to know if he could make the team. When he saw on paper the lengthy list of what he would say no to, however, saying yes to the opportunity to play college ball just didn’t weigh enough.

Only God knew that what was just around the corner for our son was a relationship with the woman who is now his wife and the mom of his three sons, plus an opportunity to pursue his dream of becoming a pastor (something that he put on hold for now while he provides for his family as an IT guy).

Obeying God is sometimes crystal clear and other times clear as mud. More on that tomorrow.

Missy’s Medals. Our Crowns.

I love the summer Olympics and this year was no exception. I particularly enjoyed watching 17-year-old Missy Franklin swim her way to four gold medals. Her smile was as engaging as her athleticism. Yet what impressed me most about her was not what happened in the pool or that she got a congratulatory call from Justin Bieber. When I learned that she signed a National letter of intent to attend college (Cal, specifically) this mom of seven was pretty stoked.

I’m not suggesting it’s wrong for all gifted high school grads to go directly into professional sports. But I think it’s impressive when young people say no to invariable knocks on their door from sponsors — whose pockets are full of money to pass on — for anything else, especially more reading, writing and arithmetic.

Hopefully Missy will win more USA medals in 2016 to the delight of a watching nation and sponsors with contracts in hand. Maybe she’ll even buy her mom a new house. But she, like the rest of us, isn’t guaranteed that tomorrow’s plans will happen. As James warns:

“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that’ (4:13-15).

Sometimes decisions are really costly. Any number of unplanned circumstances could result in the 2012 Olympics being Missy’s first and last. If the Lord wills, she’ll collect more gold medals and get that house for her mom.

But His will is a secret right now for her — and for you and me.

Missy is young. I’m sure her parents and other trusted counselors helped her weigh the risks of delaying guaranteed millions now for hoped-for millions later. We, too, are making decisions all the time that affect the future in ways we can’t anticipate. The cost of following Jesus Christ is far more weighty than any glittering gold medal hanging around our neck. In contrast, He expects us to take up a rugged cross to follow Him (Matthew 16:24).

A gold medal is a symbol of honor and achievement while a cross represents sacrifice and death to self. Every time we say yes to something, we say no to a list of other things. (More on that tomorrow.) MIssy said yes to college and no to whatever she would do with hefty checks from sponsors. I hope she gets those checks someday because I want to cheer her on in 2016. But sometimes we believers taking up our cross means being willing to say yes to God now, not knowing what will happen in the future.

What decisions are you facing that feel risky, weighty or are requiring you to take up the cross of self-deinal? Maybe it’s as simple (but necessarily easy!) as committing yourself to a more consistent devotional life in 2013. Or perhaps it’s something scary like moving to be closer to the church community of which God has called you to be a part. Maybe it’s something weighty like enduring chronic illness or a loveless marriage. Whatever the cost or sacrifice, Jesus demonstrated to us that sometimes the joy before us can help us to endure (see Hebrews 12:2).

For me, the joy before me in our upcoming move must come from simply obeying God by fulfilling my helper design as Benny’s wife. One day I hope to have something to lay at His feet as a result. Not a gold medal. But hopefully a crown.

Saturday Cartoons and a Ceiling Fan

Last Saturday I was typing this post while sitting in my family room. Here’s my story:

Today I’m remembering busy Saturdays when my day started with young ones rising early looking for food and cartoons. I grew up cleaning on Saturday mornings, and promised myself I wouldn’t deprive my kids of the Road Runner or Bugs Bunny like Mom did. My kids would get to cuddle on the couch with blankets, eat Pop Tarts and watch hours of cartoons like all my friends did growing up.

However, a couple of years after becoming a mom, “Saturday cleaning” somehow snuck into my heart and life. Homeschooling and full evenings serving the people in our church (my husband is a pastor) made Saturdays the perfect (and sometimes only!) time for weekly cleaning. Well, except once basketball seasons with weekly Saturday games often required adjusting our Friday school schedule to get chores done a day early.

The house doesn’t take long to clean anymore. Five of our seven are married with homes of their own to clean. My messy kid is in Law School at the University of Florida and only trashes his room when he’s home for the weekend. Our tidiest child is still at home and chips in to keep things clean.  Saturday chores don’t take very long anymore, unless the grandkids were over later in the week…so here I sit with vacuum lines on my carpets and the delicious smell of Pine Sol wafting through the house.

I used to look forward to these days. Now at times I find myself wishing music was blaring and I could hear kids yelling from room to room asking who used the Pledge last. This morning I almost looked for cartoons to watch.

I used to like change more than I do now. Getting something new for the house, finding a new favorite restaurant or trying a new dish on a holiday was fun. As I age, though, I’m finding myself clinging to the familiar.

I’ll tell you a secret. When we were meeting with our realtor last month about putting our house on the market I told him I didn’t want the ceiling fan in our bedroom to convey. He was understandably surprised. All the other ceiling fans could stay; just not the one over our bed. What I didn’t tell him is how much that ceiling fan helped me adjust to our current home when we moved from the one we lived in for our first decade in Florida.  Because the first thing I typically see in the morning is my three-paddle dark wood ceiling fan, it came with me to this house. Now it has to go with me to our new home in Lake Nona.

Seasons change. Children grow up and get married. Moves happen. Friends depart. Much of what changes in our lives is providentially out of our control. How kind of God to give the control of some things to us. The important thing is to make sure those things that should and must remain in His hands alone are free from the clutches of our sometimes nearsighted craving for autonomy.

Lord willing, my ceiling fan will soon be mounted above our bed in another house we’ll make our home. I’m glad that obeying God and moving to a new place (albeit only thirty minutes away) isn’t requiring that I leave all that’s familiar behind.

An old hymn I sang growing up said, “Where He leads me I will follow. I’ll go with Him all the way.”

With my ceiling fan.

P.S.  This post is the beginning of a series called, “When Obedience is Costly.” I hope you’ll join me.