It’s Not Just the SBC: My Story

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In January 2016, I moved from New Jersey to Texas to take a job at a church. Over the next several months, it became clear that my boss was battling some pretty serious mental health problems, and because I was unhealthy mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually, his issues became mine. I took his behavior personally, and took my frustration and confusion out on the people around me. It was exactly the train wreck you might imagine.

Less than a year after I arrived, my boss resigned, and I took over a lot of his responsibilities while the search for a new Discipleship Pastor was conducted. In that time, I oversaw Women’s ministry, Men’s ministry, LifeGroups, Connections, and what felt like about 20 other things. And in that time, I put a lot of work into getting healthy.

But in that time, I continued to experience a lot of frustration in how I was treated by the Executive Pastor, a man who I never really felt comfortable around, but who I was told on numerous occasions I had to trust. I grew in my leadership and influence, and really started to love my job and the people I had been called to Texas to serve. It was a weird time, but overall, I was happy. But there were patterns of behavior in the leaders of the church I didn’t understand at the time.

In light of recent events in the Southern Baptist Convention, I now understand what those patterns were and what they represent. My experiences in an EFree church were not so different from what women were experiencing at SBC institutions.

These patterns look like this:

  • When i would go to my Executive Pastor for help with a problem (which I did only after trying to solve it myself), somehow, I would end up being blamed for whatever it was. More often than not, he would use that against me at a later date, mostly during performance reviews as a reason I would not be getting a raise and would not be considered for any sort of promotion. (Message: “Women, if you have a problem, it’s probably your fault somehow.”)
  • Women on staff were mostly in admin positions, and the few of us who oversaw ministry areas were excluded from higher levels of leadership, including representation on the Lead Team. (Message: “Women don’t belong in church leadership. The Bible says so.”)
  • Men with similar levels of responsibility were paid more than women, and were given the title “pastor”, even those men who served no pastoral functions. In my role, I was writing the LifeGroup curriculum (aka teaching), and counseling, but I was a “Director”. (Message: “Women, your gifts aren’t as valuable as men’s gifts are, and there are certain gifts that you couldn’t possibly have been given.”)

When the new Discipleship Pastor was hired, I had hoped things would get better, that he would take some things off my plate (I was getting pretty exhausted trying to do two people’s jobs), and that we would be able to form a really great team. But from the minute he walked in the door, he made it clear that he was in charge, and that he didn’t want me there.

I made a couple of attempts to have conversations with him about what I was perceiving, but neither conversation resulted in any real change. I tried to talk to both the Executive Pastor and the Lead Pastor about what I was experiencing, but again, I was blamed for his behavior.

In November of last year, a week after I had completed a significant writing project, I was very suddenly laid off (it was so sudden that I had actually signed the lease for my apartment for another year just that morning). The reasons I was given in writing for my termination were:

  1. I had failed to create teams. This struck me as odd considering I was leading the second largest volunteer team at the church, and I had intentionally begun focusing on leadership development with the Women’s team. What other teams I was supposed to have created remains a mystery.
  2. “There is no place for your gifts here”. This one was the kicker, given the timing and that I had just used my gifts to complete that major project, I was using them to write LifeGroup curriculum every week, and I was pastoring the women in the church.

Needless to say, I was shocked, angry, and really, really sad, as were a number of my friends and volunteers who didn’t understand how either of those things could possibly be true.

Unsurprisingly, they weren’t true. The truth, which came out later, was simply that the Lead Pastor, Executive Pastor, and my new boss didn’t think I respected my new boss. This was 100% true, but again, I was the problem, in spite of the fact that between the two of us, I was the only one who ever made an effort at working as a team.

So because a new man was hired to do the job I was mostly already doing and he didn’t want me around, I lost my job, my church, my income, my health insurance, and even some friends. 

Today, there are now no women on staff at that church who serve in any full-time leadership position, meaning there are still no women on the Lead Team, there are no women on the “Core Team”, and there are no women in the weekly Sunday review meetings.

Their message to me that there was no place for my gifts at the church seems to be the prevailing message to all of the women in denominations like the SBC and EFree: “Stay in your lane and let the men lead”.

I know I made mistakes in the time I was at that church, and I know some of those mistakes caused problems for other people. Even as I write this, I’m still fighting away regret and shame for some of the things I did out of my frustration, discouragement, and sinful pride. I’m still grieving what happened, and still have days when I need to work hard to fight off bitterness and resentment. Today is one of those days.

Watching as the board of a large seminary allowed a man who had encouraged women to stay in abusive situations, had made disgusting comments about a 16-year-old girl, who punished a woman at his school for reporting that she had been raped, and who is allegedly involved in the cover up of another pastor accused of sexual abuse to retire with full honors and a compensation package few of us could imagine has brought a lot of my own pain, confusion, and frustration to the surface.

My situation isn’t nearly as serious as countless other women who have been abused, degraded, and oppressed under the leadership of men who firmly believe that they are more powerful, important, and blessed simply because they’re men. However, the patterns I observed in my church are the exact patterns that allow these men to continue to sin against their sisters unchecked. 

I know some people will write off my story because I’m “bitter” or “emotional”, and today, yes, I am. But more than that, I’m finally telling my story because I want to stand with so many other women and say, Me Too. It happened in my Church Too. Abuse in the church doesn’t have to be physical or sexual to be damaging. Spiritual and emotional abuse are just as bad, and often precede and accompany other kinds.

Women, we’re going to need to be even braver than usual in the coming days. The battle we’re fighting is spiritual, but it has physical ramifications. We will see an increase in men telling us to sit down and shut up because “the Bible says women are supposed to submit and be silent”, and because we’re “just trying to usurp men’s God-given authority”. Those are lies straight from the pit of hell.

God never meant for women to sit down and shut up. He used them over and over again throughout history to save His people, to share the Gospel, to found the Church, to heal the sick, to set the captives free, and to preach good news to the poor. Our voices and our gifts are needed in the Church. None of the lists of spiritual gifts in the Bible contain an asterisk stating “Men Only”.

Women, please don’t give up. Change is coming!

Men, we need you. Whether you admit it or not, you do have the power to make things right for your sisters in Christ, those co-heirs and co-laborers who are desperate to work alongside you in the Kingdom. If you see something, say something. If you have an opportunity to elevate a woman to a place of equality, please do it. You’re not giving up your seat at the table, you’re simply pulling up another chair. The table is big enough for all of us because the God who created it has no limits.

Church, we are in a battle right now. The war has already been won, but our enemy is still fighting to take as many people down with him as possible. Strap on your armor, stand together with your shields up. Pray earnestly for the gospel to go out into the world through any voice God chooses.

Pray for each other, pray for your pastors, and pray that through all of this, God will be glorified through His people working together to love and serve in the name of Jesus. 

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Purity Culture

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Don’t let anyone despise your youth, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity. ~ 1 Timothy 4:12

In this age of #MeToo and #ChurchToo, I’ve seen a lot of conversations about “Purity Culture”, especially amongst women who grew up in the 80s and 90s. For those unfamiliar with this idea, allow me to provide a brief explanation:

Coming out of the 60s and 70s – the age of free love and “Make Love, not War” – churches attempted to force the pendulum to the far opposite side of the love and sex spectrum. The result is what we refer to now as “Purity Culture”, filled with True Love Waits retreats for teenagers, Purity Contracts, and Father-Daughter date nights wherein daughters pledged to their fathers that they would save sex for their wedding night, and in some extreme cases, agreed that their fathers “owned” their virginity until that night. Rings were given, pledges were signed, and fathers shared such hilarious documents such as “The Contract to Date My Daughter“. 

You’ll note, I only talked about daughters in the previous paragraph. Well, that’s because all of this purity talk was almost exclusively directed at girls. Yes, boys got the talk too, but in all my time in fundamental churches, never once was a boy dragged to the front of the church to confess that he had had sex before marriage and gotten a girl pregnant. On the other hand, girls who got pregnant were often required to make a public apology to the church, and for some reason, weren’t seen very much in public after that.

Girls were talked to about wearing one-piece bathing suits with a t-shirt over top at Youth Group pool nights. Girls were talked to about the length of their skirts or how low cut their dresses were. Girls were talked to about modesty, about not being a temptation to boys (and horrifyingly, grown men). The message we girls received was that the most valuable, important thing about us was our virginity. This message was delivered through skits about torn up paper hearts and wilted flowers, and through object lessons using white t-shirts, dirt, mustard, and chocolate sauce. Imagine for a moment what that message did to the 1 in 4 girls who had already experienced sexual abuse, and worse, the 1 in 6 who had already lost that precious virginity through no fault of our own! 

Basically, Purity Culture was 100% about sex, and 98% of it, about girls’ sexual behavior. “Boys will be boys” but “Girls must pursue purity”.

Up until just a few hours ago, I still associated purity with my sexuality and only my sexuality. As a single woman, I assumed the directives in Scripture to be pure and to pursue purity were obeyed in my celibacy, in overcoming the addiction to pornography that plagued my 20s and 30s, and in being very, very careful about how I interacted with men, even my friends.

But this view has caused a lot of hurt and confusion as I’ve watched my friends who had had sex before marriage get married, buy houses, drive nice cars, and give birth to or adopt beautiful children, while I sit in my rented apartment alone, trying to avoid Mothers’ Day posts on social media, and hoping my car would start the next time I needed to go somewhere. Something wasn’t adding up – I had stayed pure, they hadn’t, and they were getting everything I thought (and had been told) would be the reward for my purity.

I was reading A.W. Tozer’s The Dangers of a Shallow Faith this morning (which I HIGHLY recommend to every Christian, but especially church leaders), and in the very last chapter, in just a few paragraphs, Tozer talks very briefly about purity, but here’s what grabbed my attention: He didn’t even mention sex. Rather, Tozer simply shared the definition of “purity”, stating that purity simply means that something isn’t mixed with anything else. Think pure, clean water. Think a diamond that scores high on all 5 Cs. Think Ivory soap (it’s 99 44/100% pure!).

Obviously, I see how this connects to my sexuality, but it’s so much more than just one small aspect of who I am! This simple definition completely changes how I read verses like the one quoted above, like Philippians 1:9-11, and like 1 Peter 3:1-2, all verses that were used in my Youth Group growing up to tell us girls not to have sex before marriage, to wear one-piece bathing suits, and to avoid wearing skirts and shorts that might tempt the boys.

Peter, Paul, James, and Jesus weren’t just talking about sex. They were talking about things like racism, misogyny, pride, bitterness, gluttony, lying, cheating, stealing, gossip, and every other sin that we in the church seem to have labeled as “minor” sins, and have allowed to continue unchecked in some of our leaders. They were talking about anything that doesn’t look like Jesus. It’s these things that make us impure, not just having sex before we’re married.

I have to tell you, the reason I’m writing this post is that this one truth gave me a new sense of freedom. What this told me is that as a woman, my pursuit of purity encompasses so much more than just my sexual behaviors. My pursuit of purity encompasses every part of my self – my mind, my soul, my spirit, and my body. It also means there is no “boys will be boys” exemption. All of us who wear Christ’s name are called to whole-life purity.

This definition of purity also means that those verses about being washed in the blood of the Lamb, about being made whiter than snow, and about how God sees the righteousness of Christ when He looks at me covers every part of my life. This may seem obvious, but for those of us raised in the Purity Culture, who were told that sexual sin was the one sin that could never be fully “repaired” (like that torn and crumpled paper heart), this is freedom.

Someone today needs to know that their sexual past doesn’t preclude them from ever being fully pure. That someone is probably somewhere between high school and their 50s or 60s. That someone has probably carried a lot of guilt for a long time. That someone has probably been confused and hurt that he or she isn’t married in spite of following all of the rules.

Purity is not something only the good people can experience. Purity is not something we either have or don’t depending on the decision we made that night in 11th Grade. Purity is a lifestyle that is made possible only through the blood of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit living within us. Purity is a state of being wherein God sees no blemish or stain when He looks at us. Purity is something we continue to pursue in our businesses, our Netflix choices, and how we treat our neighbors. Purity is demonstrated in our genuine love for others, in our work, and in our personal spiritual practices that focus our hearts and minds on the God who gave Himself to make us pure.

Purity is not a burden. Purity is freedom. And you don’t even have to sign a contract with your dad to get it.

The Omnipotence of God

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Over the weekend, it came to light that a prominent denominational leader and the president of a large seminary (where our future pastors are being trained) counseled women who were in abusive marriages to stay in them, because by staying and praying for their abuser, God might save those men. Now, I get where he got this teaching – 1 Peter 3 and 1 Corinthians 7 both give instruction that if a woman is married to a man who isn’t a believer, and the man is willing for them to stay married, the woman shouldn’t seek a divorce, and, it’s possible, that the man might come to believe because of the woman’s holy conduct. And, of course, I have no problem with that teaching.

Where this pastor goes off the rails is when he uses these verses to justify the evil, dangerous behavior of an abusive spouse (NOTE: I’m making an assumption that he’s using these verses as justification – none of the statements he has made have referenced these or any other Scripture, but I have heard other “pastors” use these passages for similar justifications). In neither of these passages do we see Peter or Paul advocating for a woman (and likely her children) to live in danger so that God might save a husband. 

[This dangerous teaching, by the way, is the direct result of the Church making marriage into an idol. Marriage is not the be all end all of the Christian life, and being married is not more holy, more mature, or more godly than being unmarried. It is also the direct result of churches that teach that women are somehow less than men and that women are to submit to men, ignoring the call to mutual submission between all believers, and distorting the teaching found in Ephesians 5.]

This pastor gives the horrific example of a woman who came to him for help in such a situation and he encouraged her to stay in the home and to pray openly for her husband. He even warned her that the husband was likely to become more abusive when he found out she was praying for him. He ends the story by saying that the following Sunday, the woman showed up at church with visible bruises on her face, but guess what? Her husband came to church too! So it was all good. (What?!?)

Anyone who has experience with an abusive partner knows that abusers are master manipulators and will often apologize, behave for a while, and then, more often than not, pick up right where they left off. Showing up at church is not repentance, and this pastor (and the elders who didn’t challenge him and protect her) sinned grievously against this woman.

We could talk more about that, but that’s not my point today, so let’s go there instead. My point is that it seems this pastor serves an impotent god. Any god who requires someone to be abused in order to “save” the abuser demonstrates a terrifying lack of power (not to mention the evil that requires).

This is, perhaps, an extreme example, but how many of us serve that same impotent god? How many of us worship an impotent god who:

  • Can only answer our prayers if we phrase them just so, and repeat them the exact number of times the god arbitrarily and, unknowingly to us, requires?
  • Can only keep us safe on a road trip if we ask for “traveling mercies” before we leave the driveway?
  • Can only keep our kids safe if we pray for them everyday? (I’m not saying don’t pray for your kids everyday, but ask yourself, are you worried that something bad will happen to them if you don’t?)
  • Can only give us what we need if we promise to [fill in the blank]?
  • Can only bless His Word and use it to teach, correct, and comfort if it is preached by a man?
  • Can only accept our worship if we sing certain songs and read the Bible in a certain translation?

I’m guilty of some of these superstitions too (which is exactly what they are). We all are from time to time. But the good news is that we serve an omnipotent God who doesn’t need us to do anything at all for Him to act in our best interests.

Like any loving parent who cherishes His children, He wants us to ask Him for what we need, but how often do we fall into the trap of believing we didn’t get something we felt we needed because we didn’t think to ask for it, or we didn’t ask for it “correctly”?

God does not need anyone to stay in an abusive relationship so that He can save the abuser. God can reach that person just as well in a jail cell as He can laying in his or her own bed after causing damage to a spouse or child.

God does not need to hear us say exact words before He’ll listen to our prayers and answer them in a way that is good for us. He can give us what He knows we need without us even asking because He knows our needs better than we do. He wants us to ask, but He doesn’t need us to ask before He’ll act.

God does not need to limit His voice to only men who have been to seminary and have passed their ordination boards by giving all of the right answers. He can speak just as clearly and powerfully through women, through men who dropped out of high school, and yes, through the mouths of children who have His Word hidden in their tender hearts.

Bad things don’t happen because we didn’t pray right. Bad things happen because we live in a world that is full of sin and evil and sometimes, bad things happen simply because we’re in the wrong place at the wrong time and we fall victim to the consequences of someone else’s actions.

We serve an omnipotent God. That means He can do anything He wants to do on His own, without our input. He needs nothing from us. But He wants us to serve Him, He wants us to love worshipping Him, and He wants us to talk to Him and tell Him what’s on our hearts and minds.

And I firmly believe that He wants us to live free from all forms of abuse and oppression, even if it means leaving an abusive spouse or a church that allows its pastor to preach a false gospel unchecked.

 

** If you are in an unsafe situation, get out and get help! Do whatever you need to to keep yourself and your children safe.

If you’ve gone to someone in your church for help and haven’t gotten it, leave that church and find another one. But more importantly, again, get out and get help.

If you’re local to me, I can and will help if you need it. Email me today: amy at aymiejoi dot com. If you need help, just ask. **

Obedience in a near-empty parking lot

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I sat in my car in the near-empty parking lot. “God, are You sure this is where I’m supposed to be?” The answer came quickly. “Yes. There’s something I want you to see.”

I had heard Him say that earlier in the week, and later in the week, and just this morning as I continued to check with Him about where He wanted me to worship. It’s a conversation He and I have had every week since I lost my job and my church. I ask Him where I should go to worship, and He always answers. Sometimes it’s a new church. Sometimes it’s a church I’ve visited before. And sometimes, it’s my couch, just to sit quietly with Him and rest. But there has not been a single Sunday since I lost my job in November that I haven’t had a great morning worshipping my God.

Well, there was one. One church I visited I’d written off before I’d even gotten home that day. It’s a small church, I didn’t get a lot out of the message, and about nine other reasons it wasn’t the church for me.

Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I asked God this week where He wanted me to worship and the name of that church came to mind. Most weeks, God and I have this conversation on Saturday. This week, for some reason, the conversation started all the way back on Monday. For a week, I kept asking God if I had heard Him right. “That church? Are you sure?” “Yes. There’s something I want you to see.”

By Saturday night, I was actually pretty excited to go to church. God had something He wanted me to see, and I couldn’t wait to see it! So when I pulled in about two minutes before the service was supposed to start and mine was one of four cars in the lot, I was a little confused, and, a little disappointed.


What you need to understand is this: the thing I hate the most about being single – more than not having a date to weddings and New Year’s parties, more than not having someone to help around the house and open stuck jars, more than not having anyone to talk to at the end of the day – is visiting churches. Visiting churches isn’t really fun for most people, but for a single introvert? It’s about as close to hell as I can come. Just about every visit is either full of awkward conversations that end when the other person runs out of things to ask me after I answer “no” to “Are you married?” and “Do you have kids?”, or complete isolation as I sit alone without being acknowledged by another person in any way, shape, or form. It’s awful and I hate it.

Pulling into a near-empty parking lot is crisis-worthy for me. The smaller the church, the higher the probability it will be an uncomfortable visit. This is math. It cannot be disputed.


So there I sat in my car, waiting, wondering, debating. Did they change the service time? Are they not actually meeting this week? God, is this really where I’m supposed to be?

“Yes. There’s something I want you to see.”

I knew the only right decision was getting out of the car, walking into the church, and seeing what happened next. So after about ten minutes of debating, reaching for the door handle, stopping, debating some more, reaching for the door handle again, and watching a cat in a neighboring yard stalk an unsuspecting bird, I took a deep breath, grabbed my bag, and got out of the car. (Don’t worry, the cat, it turns out, is a terrible hunter. The bird got away and then sat in a tree and mocked it.)


My fear of awkwardness found a surprising comrade as soon as I walked in the door: The pastor. He greeted me with a warm smile and a bulletin, but I could tell he was uncomfortable. The worship team was already on stage, leading all of five people (including the pastor) in song.

For some reason, the minutes we spent singing and praying were some of the most precious moments with God I’ve had in a church in weeks. Our few voices sang out together about the joy of being in God’s presence, about His love and care for us, and about His holiness, filling the room in a way that made absolutely no sense. I found myself singing out louder than I had the previous week when I’d been in a church with about 1,000 other people.

God, this is exactly where I’m supposed to be right now, isn’t it? “Yes. There’s something I want you to see.”


My suspicions that this was not a normal Sunday were confirmed when the pastor took the stage to preach. He joked about the low numbers, about the rest of the regulars who were probably somewhere enjoying tacos in the sunshine (sorry, Northern friends!), and about how he hoped for rain next week so he could make fun of them for skipping out.

The message he preached to the nine of us (another family had arrived after me and doubled our number!) was full of answers to questions I hadn’t even realized I’d been asking. Questions about spiritual slavery. Questions about freedom. Questions about how God teaches us to listen and obey. Questions I had asked just minutes earlier as I sat in my car in a near-empty parking lot. Questions I’ll need to wrestle with as I work on the book I’m writing about Exodus.

God wanted me to see these questions, and their answers.

The service ended and the woman I’d been sitting next to immediately started asking me questions. We got into a conversation about my recent past, and about her husband who refuses to darken the door of the church. This stranger and I committed to pray for each other this week.

God wanted me to see her.

As we chatted, the pastor came over and sat next to us. He apologized to me for the small crowd, and said, “You walked in and I thought, ‘what a bad week for a visitor!’.”

God wanted me to see that it’s not the size of the church, it’s the heart of the worshipper.

As I sit and eat my pancakes with mixed berries, sausage, and a good cup of coffee (yay Sunday food!!), I feel a holy stillness deep in my soul. I barely want to breathe for fear it will go away. It’s there, welling up in my chest, bringing a smile to my face, and tears to my eyes. A holy stillness. The peace that can only be found in obedience.

God wanted me to see the blessing of obedience. Again.


I don’t want to think about what today would have been like if I had left that near-empty parking lot and gone to get tacos instead of going to church, but I also know, that’s not something I would have done. No, I’ve walked with God long enough to know that when I sense Him telling me to do something – especially something I’m scared or confused about – the only thing I want to do is obey. Obedience leads to freedom. Obedience leads to adventure. Obedience leads to holy stillness. Obedience lets me see things God wants me to see.

And today obedience has taught me to trust God more quickly the next time I’m sitting in a near-empty parking lot.

What did God want me to see? I think it was simply this: In the midst of my season of waiting, trusting, wondering, and more waiting, God wanted me to see Him.

 

 

Of Manna and wet rocks

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In the morning there was a layer of dew all around the camp. When the layer of dew evaporated, there were fine flakes on the desert surface, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they asked one another, “What is it?” because they didn’t know what it was. Moses told them, “It is the bread the Lord has given you to eat.” ~ Exodus 16:13b-15a

The Lord answered Moses, “Go on ahead of the people and take some of the elders of Israel with you. Take the staff you struck the Nile with in your hand and go. I am going to stand there in front of you on the rock at Horeb; when you hit the rock, water will come out of it and the people will drink.” Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. ~ Exodus 17:5-6

Sometimes the answer to our prayers is a bit convoluted, but God is always, always faithful! The Israelites learned this lesson first-hand just weeks after God rescued them from the cruel hand of Pharaoh.

Exhausted. Shell-shocked. Confused. But safe. This was the nation of Israel after God split the Red Sea for them, but threw it over Pharaoh’s army, burying them in a watery grave. One minute God’s chosen people were running for their lives. The next, they were safe, standing on dry land, staring into the water that had just wiped out their pursuers.

Moses leads them away from the sea, and as the reality of their situation starts to dawn on them, they quickly find themselves wondering where their next meal would come from. Suddenly, Egypt looked like Paradise. It had all this great food, it had actual houses, and wells, and shops, and… It’s a bit of a strange story on first reading, but the parallels between the Israelites’ hearts and our own quickly become painfully obvious. Yes, we too forget God’s faithfulness as we move from crisis to crisis. It’s the legacy of humanity.

The Israelites turn their wrath and fear on the closest thing they see: Moses. They blame him for the fact that they don’t have food and water. So, Moses asks God for a little bit of help. And God provides, because He’s God and that’s how He chooses to operate. Do you have a need? God will meet it.

But here’s where things get a little weird. God didn’t provide food in a normal way. Not at all. Plants didn’t suddenly spring up out of the desert ground. A stream didn’t suddenly come into view as the people wandered around complaining and crying out in fear.

No, rather than giving them what they knew, God answers them by giving them something they had never seen before: Manna. And the people were confused. The word Manna means something like, “What is it?” What was it, indeed? Psalm 78:25 tells us it was “the bread of angels”. Human beings ate food that had its origins in the heavens. Unexpected. Unprecedented. Hasn’t happened since.

And the water they so desperately needed? It came out of a rock. Have you ever gotten water to come out of a rock? It doesn’t happen. But God…

When we ask God for what we need, there are two things of which we can be 100% sure:

  1. He hears us.
  2. He will always provide what we need.

But there’s something really important we need to see in this story: The Israelites asked for meat, for garlic, for leeks, for the food they ate in Egypt. They asked for what they wanted. God gave them what they needed. This is critical information for us to understand if we’re going to learn to recognize God’s provision and His answers to our prayers.

God will answer our prayers. But more often than not, the answer will look nothing like what we imagined. Why? Because God is all-wise, all-knowing, all-powerful, and He is beyond all we can imagine. God is not us. We are not God. That should go without saying, but sometimes, we just need the reminder.

God will always answer our cries for help. Always. But if we’re too busy looking at His hands, we will miss or misunderstand His answer. If we look, instead, at His face, we’ll see His love, compassion, care, and yes, His creativity. And only then will we see the answer He provides the way He does: It will be the absolute best for us in our situation. It will be the perfect answer to our imperfect prayers.

The bread of angels. A water-spewing rock. Sometimes the answer to our prayers is a bit convoluted, but God is always, always faithful!

What are you asking God to do for you today? How can you adjust your gaze from His hands to His face as you wait for His answer? 

Learning to tie our shoes

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When children are small and it’s time to leave the house, parents ask them to put on their shoes. For most parents I know, this request is made approximately 30 minutes and 63 times before any actual leaving occurs, and usually ends with someone in tears. Once shoes and feet have finally met, parents either plop their offspring in their lap, or kneel down in front of them to tie their tiny shoes.

When those children enter preschool, their constant shoe-related refrain is, “Mama, will you help me?” and thousands of times a year, Mama helps.

Now imagine for a moment, that this same child is now 16 years old and still saying, “Mama, will you help me tie my shoes?” Unless there are significant extenuating circumstances, one would agree, there’s a problem here. If an able-bodied 16 year old is still asking for help tying shoes, something has gone badly amiss.

At some point in a child’s life, Mom or Dad sits the child down and teaches him or her how to tie shoes. Sometimes it takes a few days, sometimes it takes a few weeks, but eventually, children learn how to tie their own shoes, and while it may still take 30 minutes and 63 asks to get them to do it before leaving the house, there comes a day when a parent no longer needs to take a knee before leaving the house.

I have no idea what made me think of this, but as I mulled this all over, I realized something: At some point in my spiritual growing up, I need to learn how to tie my own shoes.

I see this in prayer journals where, for most of my life, my prayers have been “Father, help me ____”. Help me be better with my money. Help me be more humble. Help me control my tongue. And while God is happy to answer those prayers, I have to wonder if there comes a time when He, like our earthly parents decides it’s time to stop helping, and time to start teaching.

In asking God to help me be more patient, what I’m really saying is “give me more patience”. In asking God to help me be diligent in my work, what I’m really saying is, “give me the will to do well”. In asking God to help, what I’m really doing is putting the responsibility for my behavior on God, and that’s not where it’s meant to be.

Throughout Scripture we see instructions to “practice” godliness, holiness, patience, and love, among other things. In other words, these are not attributes we can just expect God to miraculously give us without us having to put in any effort. Rather, they are calls to a higher way of living that we are expected to actively pursue as we grow in our faith. Yes, we do all things through the strength we find in Christ (Philippians 4:13), but again, it’s not His responsibility to make us kinder – it’s our responsibility to practice kindness because He has been kind to us and we want to live like He did.

So back to my prayers for help… As I thought about all of this, I realized that it’s time for me to make a subtle, but important shift in my prayers. Rather than asking God to help me obey, I will ask Him to teach me to obey. “Help me to humble myself” is a good prayer, especially for a newer Christian. But “teach me to humble myself” is an indication we’re ready to grow up and to start taking responsibility for our actions and attitudes.

Asking God to teach us rather than help us means we’re ready to learn how to obey Him at a higher level – not in our own power, but in a way that indicates we’re becoming spiritual adults. Asking God to teach us rather than help us means we’re ready to make a greater commitment to studying His Word, to praying deeper, more fervent prayers, and we’re ready for Him to allow our faith to be stretched in new, scary, exciting ways.

And just like a parent teaching a child to tie her shoes, God takes us in His lap so that we share His perspective, and He gently guides us through the process of learning. He patiently explains things a few times, and He lets us try it on our own, all while He sits with us, encouraging us, and cheering us on.

God longs to see us grow into mature spiritual adults (see Ephesians 4) and like any good parent, He loves to hear us ask Him to teach us new things. And when we do, He is faithful, kind, and gentle. Brothers and sisters, is it time for you to learn how to tie your shoes?

Is there something you’ve been asking God to help you with for a while? How might your character or situation change if you asked Him to teach you instead?

The B-I-B-L-E: Why is that the book for me?

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I have sought You with my whole heart; don’t let me wander from Your commands!

Psalm 119:10

A quick survey of the “Bible studies” offered in many churches, especially for women, reveals a scary trend: Most studies are topical, rather than studies of the Bible itself. This may not seem like a big deal on the surface, but consider this: How can someone who doesn’t know what the Bible says (or how to correctly interpret what it says) know that what they are learning in a topical study is true?

There is definitely a place for topical studies, but it’s not the correct place to begin. All believers need to know how to study the Bible for themselves. Every believer needs to develop some basic skills before she or he is ready for topical studies, or even to read the books that line the shelves of Christian bookstores:

  • How to choose a faithful translation of the Bible
  • How to identify the genre of a specific passage or book so that they read it the way it was intended to be read
  • How to understand the context of a verse within its paragraph, chapter, book, and the entirety of Scripture, as well as the cultural and historical context of the author and the original audience
  • How to use the tools available to us including a Bible dictionary, commentaries, and how to look up the meanings of words in the languages in which they were originally written
  • How to compare Scripture to Scripture to better understand difficult or confusing passages, and passages that are commonly misinterpreted

While there are many reasons to learn how to study the Bible, these are three of the most important:

The Bible is the only way we know God. How would we know to pray if we didn’t have the Bible teaching us through the prayers of our forerunners? How would we know to worship if not for songs of praise, lament, adoration, and surrender spread throughout the sacred pages? How would we know of God’s unfailing love for us if not for the stories of those who experienced it long ago? How would we know sin and salvation, grace and the Gospel, the Law and Love personified if not for the gift of God’s Word? The Bible is our first taste of the Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, Provider, and Healer to whom we pray and who our souls long to know.

The Bible is the standard by which everything is to be judged. In His prayer for us the night He was betrayed, Jesus prayed, “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth” (John 17:17, ESV). The Bible stands in direct opposition to a world that teaches that there is no absolute truth. There is, and it is God’s Word. While Scripture doesn’t directly address every possible situation in which we may find ourselves, there are principles within its pages that we can and should apply. When we know how to study the Bible and apply what we learn, our jobs, relationships, and finances will benefit in ways no topical Bible study could ever bring about.

We are responsible for what we do, not what we hear. While our pastors and Bible teachers are responsible to handle the Word and teach it correctly (see 2 Timothy 2:15), we are responsible for our actions in response to what we hear (see James 1:22-25). This means that we’re responsible for making sure what we’ve heard is biblically accurate and true, which we can only do if we know how to check. Acts 17:11 tells us that the believers in Berea listened to what Paul and Silas taught, and then, they searched the Scriptures for themselves to make sure what they had been told was actually true. Luke praises them as “being more noble than those in Thessalonica” because of their diligence.

Biblical literacy and regular study (not just reading – intentional study) are critical, especially for anyone God has called and gifted to teach, preach, and lead in His Church. We have been set apart by God in truth to teach and care for His people. God’s Word is truth.

How has studying the Bible changed your life?

Pastors, how have you equipped and encouraged the people in your church to study the Bible?

Don’t know where to start? I highly recommend Howard Hendricks’ “Living By the Book“.

Rejoice always (But grieve first)

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I don’t know what to say right now. I’m raw and bleeding, afraid and angry, hopeful and encouraged, trusting and believing. It’s a really messy combination.

This morning, I got to sit with a friend who is feeling exactly the same things because of circumstances God has allowed to touch her life. It was a beautiful conversation in which we gave each other permission to not be ok, to be honest about what’s going on and how we feel about it.

Sometimes, that’s what a hurting friend needs: permission to feel crappy, to say out loud that something is unfair, or painful, or just flat out stinks. There’s a strong temptation in the Church to put on “I’m rejoicing always” masks. We are told to rejoice in every situation (1 Thessalonians 5:16), and there are good reasons for this. But there are moments in life when what we really need to do is sit and grieve and talk honestly about the pain.

There’s a danger in immediately moving into “rejoicing” territory when we’re broken. Open honesty about how we’re feeling is an important component of healthy grieving, but I think it does something else for us. Being open and honest about our grief gets it out and makes room in our hearts and minds for rejoicing. Think about it this way: How can our rejoicing be genuine if our grief isn’t? How can we learn to trust in the midst of the storm if we’re busy acting like it’s a warm, sunny day?

We’re not called to live in a state of denial. In fact, to live in a state of denial about our circumstances is to lie, and as we all know, lying is against the Ten Commandments! So how do we obey the command to “rejoice always” when the rug has just been pulled out from under us and our nose is bleeding from hitting the floor so hard?

I don’t generally make it a habit to teach on just one verse, but there is a verse in Psalm 55 that has stopped me in my tracks every time I’ve run across it, because it’s such a complete picture of healthy grieving in just a few words:

Evening and morning and at noon I utter my complaint and moan, and He hears my voice. ~ Psalm 55:17 (ESV)

This one verse is a perfect summation and example of healthy grieving:

  • It’s honest: “God, I have a complaint”
  • It’s raw: “God, my soul is moaning in pain”
  • It’s not time-limited: “Evening and morning and at noon, God, I’m going to keep bringing this to Your attention”
  • It’s hopeful: “God, I know You hear me”

If we do look at the immediate context of this one verse, we see that it is bookended with words of great faith: “The Lord will save me” (v. 16), and “He redeems my soul” (v. 18). In David’s suffering, he knew the truth, but – and here’s the key for us – he stopped and allowed himself to feel all of the negative feelings that came with his situation. David was trying to process deep betrayal as he ran for his life from King Saul. And he didn’t hold back in talking about how he was feeling about his circumstances.

Many of us have been taught and conditioned that our “bad” feelings (sadness, anger, despair, etc.) should be ignored or pushed aside, not trusted, or that they’re somehow sinful. But that’s not biblical. Our emotions are part of who God created us to be (and remember, we were made in His image). Our feelings in and of themselves are not sinful. And they are not to be ignored or discounted. They are part of who we are and they serve an important purpose as we navigate life. Yes, they need to be brought into obedience to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:4-5), but again, in and of themselves, they’re not “bad”.

Even Jesus expressed His “bad” feelings at times. We see Him angry in the Temple (Matthew 21:12), grieving at His friend’s grave (John 11:33-35), and in complete despair in the garden (Luke 22:41-44). In none of these stories do we see Jesus trying to cover up negative emotions, or even downplay or gloss over them. No, in these situations, Jesus’ emotions were on full display, and He made no excuses for them. And, in none of these stories do we see Jesus immediately jump to “rejoicing always”. No, He sat with His pain, and He brought it to God with the same kind of raw honesty we see throughout the Psalms.

David and Jesus didn’t disguise their “bad” feelings. And they didn’t brush past them so they could get to the rejoicing part. Did they rejoice eventually? Of course, and we need to as well. But first, we need to face our reality and deal honestly with how we feel about it.

So now that we’ve established how important it is to grieve honestly and to allow space for our friends to do the same, how do we move into the obedience of rejoicing?

As my friend and I listened to each other’s stories, we gave each other permission to grieve honestly, but we did something else equally important: We spoke a lot of biblical truth to each other. We didn’t hit each other over the head with verses, or discount how we were feeling in any way. We just gently reminded each other of the Truth so that in our processing and grieving, we can keep our eyes and hearts on our Healer, Redeemer, and Provider.

Before issuing the command to rejoice always, Paul says that we don’t grieve without hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Our hope is, always has been, and always will be Jesus, and our job as brothers and sisters in Christ is to gently and with genuine love point each other right at Him. With our eyes focused on Him, then, and only then, can we really rejoice. And once we’re able to do that, we can work to stop the bleeding, put ice on the bruises, and start on the path toward healing.

What has helped you move from grief to rejoicing so that you could heal more fully?

 

 

 

Let’s Talk About #Depression

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This entry is Part 3 of a series on mental health and #metoo. Last week I told a little bit of my story, and invited you to tell yours. Then, because of the response to that post, I wrote about Anxiety and how we as followers of Christ can live in triumph over it (or at least fight it off better than we sometimes do). If you haven’t at least read the post on Anxiety, go back and read it, as the principles in that post apply to this one as well.


Peanut butter & jelly. Kittens & puppies. Salt & pepper. Socks & shoes. Bread & wine.

So many of the things we enjoy in life or use every day come in pairs. Sure, you can have one without the other, and at times, that’s appropriate, but more often than not, there’s a good reason two things are rarely thought of without the other.

Unfortunately for many people – myself included – there is another pair in our lives, but this pair we would be better off without…

I think I’ve been struggling with depression since I was between 5 and 7 years old. The first time I remember thinking I’d be better off dead, I was still in elementary school. The first time I made a half-hearted attempt to end my life, I was a freshman in high school. In my case, the anxiety came later, but for you, it may have been the other way around. Regardless, depression and anxiety go hand-in-hand so often, that pharmaceutical companies have developed single drugs that fight both illnesses, in spite of the fact that they occur and manifest themselves in nearly opposite ways.

Depression brings with it a heavy darkness like no other, suffocating us with the weight of sadness, hopelessness, and, after a while, helplessness. Where anxiety is passively active, depression is actively passive. Anxiety sits below the surface, that constant gnawing in the stomach and irrational fear of the what if, urging us ever on toward action, even when we don’t know what action to take.

Depression, on the other hand, just sits there, pushing in against our lungs, keeping us in bed, on the couch, staring but not seeing, preventing us from enjoying anything at all. And like anxiety, depression has its own script. Rather than plaguing us with “what ifs” and “you should bes”, depression’s script is filled with “why bothers” and “who careses”.

But depression is not of God. You already know that. While it may lead you at times to blame God for any number of things you think are causing you to be depressed, deep down, you already know where depression comes from: Hell.

Remember, Jesus said that Satan came to “steal, kill, and destroy” (see John 10:10). That sounds like a pretty good description of depression to me! So if depression isn’t from God, and is from our enemy, what are some ways we can combat it and live into the abundant life Jesus came to give us? In addition to what we talked about when we addressed anxiety, give these a try:

 

Change Your Focus: So often, we fall into those paralyzing states of depression because we’ve allowed our minds to focus on wrong things for too long, leaving them unchecked and free to destroy any glimmer of hope we may have mustered recently. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul gives some advice that is endlessly helpful for us whose brains tend to work against us and wear us down: Think positive thoughts.

Ok, I know that sounds awfully trite and a lot like what you’ve heard over and over again. But God, through Paul, is calling us to a higher level of thought: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable – if there is any moral excellence and if there is anything praiseworthy – dwell on these things.” (Philippians 4:8, CSV)

Think about some of the most common thoughts you have either daily, or especially when you’re in the midst of a depressed episode. Are your common thoughts filled with the truth as revealed in God’s Word? Are those thoughts pure or lovely or praiseworthy? I’d be willing to bet they’re not because those aren’t the kinds of thoughts that come naturally, and they’re certainly not the kinds of thoughts your enemy wants you to think!

This takes practice. This takes intentionality. But if you lean on the Holy Spirit living in you, take your thoughts captive and make them obedient to Christ (see 2 Corinthians 10:5), and choose to actively and regularly focus your thoughts on those things that are from God, you really will begin to notice a change in your thought patterns which can pull your heart and mind out of the pit more quickly each time!

 

Stick to a Schedule: With the exception of the rare (and these need to be rare!!) Mental Health Day, one of the most helpful ways to combat depression is to create a daily routine and stick to it!

  • Get up around the same time every morning. (That means wake up well before noon, just in case you were wondering.)
  • Take a shower. Brush your teeth. If your children will allow it, put on makeup from time to time.
  • Eat a healthy breakfast.
  • Spend time with Jesus. Ask the Holy Spirit to teach you, guide you, and challenge you as you spend time in God’s Word and in prayer. Pray for others, express gratitude and praise. Even in your prayers, focus your mind on what is true, what is honorable, etc. Here’s something really important I’ve learned: A good sign your depression has turned into an idol is if it monopolizes most of your prayers. So change the focus of your prayers to worship, thanks, and intercession for others. God knows what you need, and when the time is right, He will provide and heal.
  • Go to work or school, take the kids to the park, or find somewhere to volunteer. In other words, get out of the house for a bit!
  • Exercise, even if it’s just going for a walk or doing some Pilates.
  • Eat a healthy lunch.
  • Make intentional contact with another (adult) human being. If you’re at work or school, ask someone you see how they are, and then listen. Don’t let them off with “fine” – really ask, and don’t interrupt with your own thoughts and stories. If you’re at home, call a friend, especially if you really, really, don’t want to. Engage the cashier at Target in conversation, and if you’re brave enough, ask how you can pray for them. (And then do it!)
  • Limit your Social Media time. Social media is one of the quickest ways to move from having a good day to being depressed. Everyone’s life will look better than yours in the pictures and posts you see and those thoughts will consume you. (Remember thinking about what’s true? Here’s a great place to practice that one…) Get off your phone or your computer and go read a book or blow bubbles with your kids or something. Or, get your work done. Something, anything, other than looking at the polished exteriors of other people’s inwardly messy lives.
  • Eat a healthy dinner. (Are you detecting a pattern here? Good, because the food we eat can absolutely affect our mood!)
  • Take some time at the end of the day to review: What good things happened? In what ways did you succeed? What are 5 things you can be thankful for? Write these things down. A day will come when you’ll need the review. (Another option is to regularly practice the spiritual discipline of Examen.
  • Do something you enjoy. Have a scoop of ice cream. (Note: An entire carton is not “a scoop”. You know that.) Watch a movie with a friend or loved one. Take a hot bath or shower. Snuggle up in a blanket with a good book.
  • Go to bed on time. It will make following your schedule that much easier tomorrow.

 

Depression can feel unbeatable sometimes.

It’s not.

It can feel like it’s suffocating you.

It’s not.

It can tempt you to end your life because nothing is worth the pain you’re feeling.

It’s wrong.

Remember, at the cross of Jesus Christ, depression lost its grip on you. When Jesus burst out of that grave, sin, death, and every other evil thing shattered, and we are no longer bound by these things. We are free to live lives of abundant joy, of hope, of excitement because those are the lives God created us to live. We are no longer slaves to sin, sickness, and death. We live in the victory Jesus has won for us! 

 

What has helped you overcome or at least fight off your depression and suicidal thoughts?

Let’s Talk About #Anxiety

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Yesterday, I told a little bit of my #MeToo story, and from the reactions to that post, and from an experience I had this morning, I think we need to talk about a couple of the most common consequences of sexual abuse: Anxiety and Depression


I felt it coming on. It started with a tingling in my legs. Then the sweating started, and that unmistakeable feeling in my stomach. I was heading into a panic attack.

Although I haven’t had a panic attack in about a year, I still recognized it when it started. But unlike every other time, I saw right through it and was able to stop it in its tracks. Previous attacks have prompted me to try to figure out what was causing them. This is a great place to start sometimes. But this one was different, and I recognized immediately that this one was nothing more than a direct attempt by my enemy to throw me into chaos and take my eyes off of God.

God has been doing some unbelievable things in and through me this week as He is working out some final details of our new plan. So it makes perfect sense that my enemy want to try to thwart that. So I told on him, did some controlled breathing, and in no time, he was forced to retreat.

It doesn’t always work like this, I know. In fact, this is the exception to the rule. I know the pain and helplessness that comes from suffering from panic attacks, and I know that often, there’s no easy or quick solution. I’ve been there. I understand.

So what do we do when Anxiety is our proverbial thorn? Here are 3 ways I’ve learned to overcome anxiety:

Take Your Medicine: if you’ve been battling with any kind of mental illness for a while, believe it or not, your brain has probably changed, and not for the better, as I’m sure you can imagine. Long-term anxiety (as well as other illnesses like depression and bi-polar) changes the way your brain cells function, and the way chemicals in your brain such as dopamine and serotonin are generated and passed back and forth. Medication helps remedy this problem, and in some cases, can even reverse it.

If you grew up in a more conservative or fundamental denomination like I did, you may have been taught that any kind of mental illness is the result of sin and a lack of faith, and that taking medication is the manifestation of those two evils. Listen to me very carefully: THIS IS A LIE straight from the pit of hell, devised only to keep you in bondage and to destroy you. I cannot stress this enough.

If you need medication to reverse the long-term affects of mental illness (your doctor can help you determine this), take it! God works just as powerfully through medicine as He does through prayer. He invented the technology to fix what’s broken in us. It’s just as ok to take medicine for mental illness as it is to undergo chemo treatments for cancer.

Also, go to a counselor!!! There’s no shame in getting help and everyone around you will be happy you did! Trust me, I know.

 

Tell Dad: This is exactly what I did this morning. I felt the panic attack coming on and I knew that it was nothing more than my enemy trying to derail me from everything God is doing in and through me right now. So I told on him to my Father, and He put a quick end to this one. Sometimes, the best thing to do when anxiety creeps up (or just flat-out attacks you) – especially if you know that you’re in the center of God’s will and He’s doing great things in you and through you – is to just tell God about it, and ask Him to pour out His peace and grace on you in that moment.

 

Ask Why: Sometimes, a panic attack requires some work on our part before it can be overcome. There are times when we need to talk to God about the attack itself and work out with Him what else is causing it. David (see Psalm 42) and Paul (see 2 Corinthians 10:3-5) both took this approach, taking the time to examine the whys behind anxiety. Are there thoughts you need to stop thinking? Are there fears and doubts you need to confess and repent of? Have you been skimping on your time in God’s Word and sitting with Him in prayer? Do you need to intentionally put on your armor every day (see Ephesians 6:10-18)? Ask that all important “why”, and then act on whatever God reveals to you as the source of your anxiety, and what you might be able to do about it.

 

God did not create anxiety. It is a consequence of sin – ours and other people’s against us. But in everything, there is grace. Remember, Jesus conquered sin and death forever when He victoriously came back to life. But we’re living in an already/not yet world, so the effects of sin still touch our lives everyday. We don’t live defeated, though. In Jesus, we are victorious and we have everything we need to overcome. Just like cancer, God may not choose to completely heal you here on earth, but He will provide the tools, the strength, the grace, and the peace you need to live the abundant life Jesus died to give you. Why are you anxious, oh, my soul? Put your hope in God! 

 

What has helped you get through panic attacks and times of increased stress and anxiety?