Learning boundaries, motives, and more, in 300 words or less.

Any minute my kids are going to wake up, and I’ll shut off my laptop so I can be with them. My middle son is almost always up at exactly 7am, which is the time they’re allowed to wake up. His biological alarm clock is both accurate and faithful.

This week, I’ve been learning a lot about boundaries on work. It’s a new thing for me, being paid by the hour/by the article. It’s also a new thing to be “paid” at all. Before this season of our lives, my husband and I were missionaries. So it’s not that we were paid to do missions work; we were supported by donations, so we could put all our efforts into serving.

There were boundary issues with that lifestyle as well, as any minister, and probably most nonprofit leaders, can testify. (I hear the kids now. 7:05.)

I suppose the logical way to learn this new balance would be to take cues from my old way of balancing.

  1. Notice the signs that I’ve overstuffed my life (not wanting to see any humans ever, even if they’re my offspring; eating cold leftovers even if I’m not hungry; etc., etc.)
  2. Talk with my husband about how I’ve worked myself into a pickle. Promising more output than I have capacity to produce. He probably thinks to himself, “Here again? If this territory isn’t pleasant, at least it’s familiar.”
  3. Carve out an hour or two of quiet so I can reassess my motives.

That last bit is the part I always forget that I need. I remember the first time it dawned on me that motives are important. I was at a Christian retreat, in the middle of a stuffy worship session (stuffy because the air in the room was being breathed by so many people.) I was doing the things you’re supposed to do during worship time when the thought came to me, “You do not receive because you ask with wrong motives.”

I left the stuffy room and stood by the lake. I felt crazy and wild as a young person who had never snuck out of her summer camp cabin and always listened carefully when the rules were being explained (I still listen on the airplane to the oxygen mask talk. It’s not something I’m proud of).

My chest was burning with the question: what are my motives? I didn’t even get answers to the question. The answer is always kaleidoscopic and always unfolding. There is good mixed in with bad. It all becomes increasingly complicated, as I realize there are more than two possible colors.

Rather than understanding myself better—and needing less time to sort out my motives—I find myself needing more time and less talking on my part. More listening and more resting to get things in order.

That’s what I need today. More listening and more resting. More enjoying what is before me and not worrying so much about whether I’ll accomplish all the things I said I could do. To those readers who practice Sabbath-keeping (i.e., taking a day off because God is bigger than work), may it be a refreshing one for you. And may we all find those boundaries that bring rest.

Here are a couple articles I’ve written recently for BibleStudyTools.com (I would add nice pictures and stuff, but I’m going to go make pancakes with my kids!)

How to Bring Biblical Blessings into Your Life

https://www.biblestudytools.com/bible-study/topical-studies/how-to-bring-biblical-blessings-into-your-life.html

Shifting our Focus from Tragedy to Hope (in memory of 9/11)

https://www.biblestudytools.com/bible-study/topical-studies/shifting-our-focus-from-tragedy-to-hope.html

A Glorious Way

He has made glorious the way of the sea. —Isaiah 9:1

Photo by Padraig Treanor on Unsplash

One of the most ancient of stories for Christians and Jews: Moses leading the people through the Red Sea. Over and again, the Bible authors reference this story as a defining moment for God’s people.

Then why do we—why do I?—feel surprised and betrayed when the path I’m walking is muddy, or narrow, or feels like the whole thing could come caving in at any moment?

God has made glorious this way in between two towering, tottering mountains of water, with a furious army in pursuit, with babies and all earthly possession in tow. That doesn’t sound very glorious.

When the Israelites made a similar trek through the Jordan River, led by Joshua, it says they “passed over in haste” (Joshua 4:10). This was no golden-paved route to savor.

Our practical expectation for our lives as believers tends to focus on the first portion of Psalm 23:

“He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters.”

We expect that most of our lives will be resting in green pastures, and if our pasture isn’t very green we look to another. Maybe that pasture over there will bring even more rest and enjoyment.

But the poem continues:

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

and

“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”

The peaceful cadence of this psalm and its overfamiliarity give the impression that mostly life as a godly person will be gentle and joyful. This is often true.

Where we get off is that we think that “gentle and joyful” will come as a result of the circumstances God leads us into or provides for us. But this psalm paints an “even though” picture of gentleness and joy.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.

He has made glorious the way of the sea. He has chosen and elevated the muddy, difficult, dangerous way because it defines us as his own. He brings gentleness and joy in the midst of very difficult and sometimes dangerous circumstances.

Once you’ve walked through the valley of the shadow of death with God, you will be marked by that experience forever. Maybe it’s coming near physical death or enduring deep emotional pain. Maybe it’s a source of fear, a threat on your family’s well-being of some kind, and you do not know what lies before you or how far this valley extends.

The “way of the sea” is stepping day by day through the muck and darkness, with your only assurance being the voice of the Holy Spirit saying, this is the way, walk in it.

If you are walking through fear, grief, anger, or fighting sin tooth and nail, know that God’s intention is to make glorious this way. He wants to define your life with his rescue in it. He wants to teach you to listen to his voice even when the sound of the waves he’s holding back are churning in your ears. (I wonder what sounds the Israelites were hearing when they walked through the heaped up waters with thousands of people in their company and an army of chariots behind them.)

The most dangerous thing to do when you’re walking through a valley with God is to turn aside, off the path. Once you’ve started on a way with God, breaking off from him to chart your own way is sure to fail and to bring great destruction. Imagine a man in the multitude passing through the Red Sea freaking out and deciding to swim instead, or turning back to attempt negotiation with the enemy. No, the only wise choice is to march forward in the narrow strip of mud with massive tons of water held up in gravity-defying formation.

There are paths through the sea in our everyday lives. And some of us may be walking through a long, life-defining one right now.

The glorious way of the sea today may be allowing ourselves to feel sadness or boredom and talking to God or someone we love about it, instead of turning on Netflix or scooping another bowl of ice cream. It may mean buckling down and doing the tasks required of us, even though we’d like to search for a new job during work hours. It may mean turning our thoughts from angry blame to patient blessing when someone has wronged us.

The path through the sea may be shrouded in darkness, loss, and fear. It may not look very glorious now. But by bringing up this story over and over, the Bible authors are reminding us that this is God’s way. That the muddiness and even the drama are not indications that one has ventured out of God’s will. They can become evidence of his rescuing love.

God has made glorious the way of the sea. Let us walk in it today.

Recommended reading: Psalm 77

The Faithful

“The faithful are not from here, and the faithful are not staying here.”

Pastor Jay Greener, based on Hebrews 11

Faith is one of those things that’s easier to see in other people than in ourselves. It’s also easier to see looking into the past. And faith is by definition oriented toward the future.

In other people

The faithful are not from here: like Abraham, the faithful are travelers in a foreign land, called out from that which is known into the unknown, because there is something that isn’t yet known to be found.

The faithful know themselves to be from somewhere else: like Moses, the faithful look in the mirror and see themselves dressed in the costume of a foreign people.

The faithful are not staying here: like Noah, the faithful readily use their material resources to prepare for the coming age, when all those material things will be underwater anyhow. No sense preserving either gopher wood or social standing.

Listing off Abraham, Moses, and Noah, along with many others in Hebrews 11, gives the impression that “the Faithful” are the greats. The A-listers, the best in class But that’s not the point the author of Hebrews is making. He precludes his list of the Faithful with these words:

Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward….We are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.

Hebrews 10:35, 39

His point is, in speaking to believers, that we are to see ourselves as one of a long line of faithful ones, peoples who lives illustrate a dogged belief in something greater and in Someone better.

In the past

To shift abruptly into personal reflection, I’ve found it much easier to discern whether I’ve been acting in faith when there are a few years’ distance between me and my actions.

The fact that I can reflect on our missionary career (my husband’s and mine) without too many regrets is a faith builder in itself. God made it his own prerogative to see that our motivations were saturated in faith, born out of belief that he rewards those who diligently seek him.

God’s methodology in properly grounding our motivations had a lot to do with restraint. Knowing how generous he is, I imagine it was hard for him to wait to give us the rewards we were asking for. Instead, he gave us the gift of himself as a personal trainer, working with us toward a longer-lasting version of what we were requesting.

Let me speak in plain terms about our experience as campus missionaries. When we sought to establish a new ministry, we didn’t expect it to grow overnight, and we enjoyed the beginning. Starting with about 15 students (several of whom are still close friends), we added about 5 people per semester in those first few semesters. We thought that was pretty great.

We were learning a lot, praying a lot, pastoring our students to the best of our ability, and attempting to train students to lead others into the faith.

After a few semesters, we began to see some stagnation in our growth numerically, even though we were seeing many of our students grow deeply on a personal level. We were trying to establish a living, growing community, and we were living but not growing. Additionally, some of those we helped to get started in their faith had walked away from Christ shortly after. Others walked away from our community, leaving with critical words or callous indifference.

In the midst of all this, we experienced the death of two loved ones. My father and one of our young staff members.

Those years felt like tilling the hardest of soil. Although we were not fruitless and enjoyed the fellowship of many sweet students and staff, we had to work so hard for every inch of ground.

The effect of these dry times was to send our roots pushing into deeper ground in search of water. Again and again we had to ask ourselves, “is this worth it? [yes]; could someone else be doing this better? [yes!]; are we going to struggle like this forever? [maybe].” And each time, God gave us the grace to eventually remember—after plenty of bad attitudes and tears—that he is our commanding officer, and the results of our obedience are his concern. He rewards obedience, not success.

We also had to nurture the belief that faith is a seed that starts very small and grows into something expansive, but its growth is slow and mostly underground.

Had we experienced immediate raging success, we would’ve had a whole other set of temptations to fight, different lessons to learn, and a different type of battle scars. Still, we often caught ourselves wishing for that kind of struggle, the one where you try to stay humble and keep your head when everyone’s shouting your name.

Looking back, I feel at peace about our journey, and I feel great joy about the students and staff who now call our community their family.

So what does it mean to be faithful? For us, it has meant being empty and God coming along and filling us with the belief that what we see now is not all there will be.

Looking ahead

The true reward for our service in campus ministry is not the years of simple growth and enjoyment that followed those dry years. It’s not even the individual faces that fill our minds when we remember the goodness of God.

Our true reward in the present is the water that comes up through those roots, the Spirit of God himself. And our reward looking ahead is the promise of a greater capacity to be filled. To know him as we are known.

May this day be another step towards that great day.

Close to home: writing about leadership transition

This week, I wrote an article for Bible Study Tools that shares “Lessons on leadership from the Book of Joshua.” My editor thought that was a simple title, but really this article is for followers. Many church members have been through the wringer lately with leadership transitions that are both public and messy.

As my family has experienced, even leadership transitions that are relatively healthy and scandal-free can be very difficult. Maybe they always are?

This May, we moved from Indiana to the Chicago area, leaving our “baby”—the campus ministry we helped to establish—in the care of new leaders, who are very capable and very dear to us. The real lessons are probably being learned now in our absence, but we discovered how closely one clings to the mast of Christ at these times.

Though Joshua lived long before the time of Christ, he found his moorings in the same spirit of wisdom that stabilizes us today. I hope this article is helpful whether you’re a leader, church member, or onlooker of the messy church world.

Lessons in Leadership from the Book of Joshua

https://www.biblestudytools.com/bible-study/topical-studies/lessons-in-leadership-from-the-book-of-joshua.html

I wouldn’t want to be God

God gets the worst presents. I give him my worries, my fears, my anger. The other day, I was headed into a doctor appointment where I feared bad news. I told God, “Lord, I’m just giving this to you.” Wow, happy birthday, God. Have some unfounded, overly dramatic fear because I love you so much. And then in return, he gave me peace and hopeful expectation, and an “all clear” from the doctor.

God also gets my songs that are too embarrassing to share with humans. And a daily rundown of the things I hope will happen and things I need his help with. He gets a shopping list of things I’m not sure how we’ll pay for. (And I wonder if he’s got a separate list of all the stuff he’s planning to give us that I don’t think to ask for.)

So I really wouldn’t want to be God, because he gets the worst gifts. But then again, maybe it would be nice to God, because he seems perfectly happy to receive them.

Encouraging parents to stay involved in their teens’ spiritual lives

I have a new article up at Bible Study Tools! At first I was hesitant to write on this topic, since my kids haven’t become teenagers yet. But then I realized I worked with teenagers for 15 years! Also I was teenager once…a pretty difficult one, I think 😉

How to Encourage Your Teenagers to Read the Bible

My editor chose this photo, but I really like how moody the guy looks.

Raising hands in worship: a new (or very old) way of thinking

Some of my students call it Football Hands: both hands lifted high in the air like a ref calling a touchdown. They try to predict what part of the worship song “everybody will go Football Hands,” when the music becomes the most moving and people want to express themselves more fully to God. This bothers me as a deeply serious person, but they’re joking in the way kids sometimes can, without real cynicism.

Raising hands, dancing, clapping, and shouting are hallmarks of Pentecostal worship. Having grown up in a well-behaved Baptist culture, I was drawn to this aspect of the college group I joined, which I later learned was Pentecostal. I could see their sincerity on the outside as well as the inside. Worship was about more than singing—it was an experience.

There’s a weak side to this expressive culture. Sometimes you’re expected to wear your worship on the outside for all to see. And if you don’t, you’re thought to be a bit less than spiritual. I’ve been guilty of raising my hands because I didn’t want to be the only one not doing so.

Now I’m attending a somewhat formal liturgical church and I’m back to square one on figuring out when to raise my hands. A few people do in our church, but honestly, one of the biggest obstacles is the printed bulletins we all hold with the words to the songs and prayers written out (no powerpoint slides.) Lifting one’s hands also means waving around a bulletin and not being able to see the words.

Should I overcome this obstacle when I can, or does it not matter much? Why is it wrong to raise my hands for others to see? Why is it weird to be able to predict when everyone will spontaneously go Football Hands?

Scripture is full of descriptions of people worshipping with their bodies, emotions, and minds. Just to keep things brief, I’ll only bring up a few that talk about raising our hands.

Psalm 63:4 says, “I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands.”

Psalm 141:2 says, “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice!”

And Paul says in 1 Timothy 2:8, “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling.”

Maybe there are some scriptures that describe raising hands as an involuntary action, but most of the time it’s either an exhortation or a commitment. (“Lift your hands” or “I will lift my hands.”) It comes across as a choice we can make.

As usual, there are really good reasons for this instruction and practice for God’s people.

When I raise my hands in worship, my mind tends to be more engaged. It takes some attention to keep my hands in the air, and sometimes I have chosen to stay in that position even when my arms were tired. It’s a way of saying to God, “I am fully here. Body, mind, emotions. I mean what I am singing, and I’m not letting my mind wander. I’m not saving my energy for something else.”

Is it right to raise my hands if I don’t really feel overcome by worshipful emotions? Isn’t that insincere? I would suggest that it’s no more insincere than singing words that we’re not really “feeling” in the moment.

Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

Our devotion to God—singing worship songs, spending time with Him, obeying His commands—has to do with his deserving our devotion, not necessarily with our feeling devoted. He deserves our feelings too, but we don’t have a lot of control over that. We do have control over our minds and our bodies and our actions.

One of our choices is to involve our bodies in worship, and people have been doing that for eons. Anyone with an arm or two can participate. This simple act transcends cultures, centuries, languages and social classes.

Raising our hands helps us focus our minds, give God our energy, and make sure that worshipping is the only thing we’re doing at the moment. It’s hard to multitask when your hands are in the air, not to mention awkward.

I’m not suggesting that “real” worship must be punctuated with raised hands. There are plenty of other ways to fully involve ourselves in worship. This includes holding my preschooler on my hip and holding the bulletin in the other hand to sing unfamiliar songs to the best of my ability. My utmost for His highest looks different in different moments.

To those who feel strange doing something unfamiliar, afraid that others may notice and judge: try to shift your attention to God’s view of your actions. Try picturing Him watching you worship, listening to your words, and seeing your face. Try turning on a worship song at home and lifting your hands as you sing. Imagine yourself in a crowd with the holy people of old, King David even, hands raised; and there is God, so pleased with His people.