When change sneaks up on you

31days-2014-250So often, as we draw nearer to God and he removes our heart of stone and gives us a heart of flesh, we come to see the world differently. Compassion replaces disdain, concern replaces judgement, pity replaces scorn.

But we can also experience times of spiritual atrophy in which we outwardly appear the same, participate in the same activities, and use the same words, but our once softened heart becomes hardened yet again. This condition can sneak up on us unawares and we can become hardened without realizing it. Simple things like schedule changes, life transitions, and new routines can separate us from the daily spiritual renewal that keeps our hearts soft.

What is the remedy?

No amount of spiritual activity can shield us from this slipping. Spiritual activity, done out of obligation and not love, can actually contribute to the hardening.

Only daily seeking of God through his word, sincere prayer, and humble confession can keep us steady on the path of soft-hearted, God-fueled love. It’s only in seeing our moral bankruptcy before a Holy God, and daily receiving the mercy offered us through Jesus, that we can continually look on the struggling with compassion and grace. Otherwise we will forget the unfathomable patience of our God and grow increasingly impatient with our fellow man.

And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. (Ezekiel 36:26-28)

When it’s you that needs to change

In his book Spiritual Depression: It’s causes and cure, D. Martin Lloyd-Jones gives essential advice when we find ourselves having lost our joy in the faith. He says this:

spiritual_depressionThe main art in the matter of spiritual living is to know how to handle yourself. You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. … You must turn on yourself, upbraid yourself, condemn yourself, exhort yourself, and say to yourself: ‘Hope thou in God’ — instead of muttering in this depressed unhappy way. And then you must go on to remind yourself of God, Who God is, and what God is and what God has done, and what God has pledged himself to do.

Bumper stickers and memes express a similar idea when they say, “Don’t believe everything you think!” to which I add “Don’t believe everything you feel.”

I find myself leaning on this counsel daily. The challenges of late pregnancy, including physical discomfort and emotional discontent, have left me feeling a combination of useless, disoriented, and afraid — emotions uncommon for me. As these feelings come in waves, I can choose to give in to them, to believe them, to allow them sway over my attitude and behavior or I can talk back to them, preach to them, confront them with what I know to be true.

31days-2014-250The greatest asset with which to resist these emotions is Scripture. I’ve found that as meditate on pertinent passages the words seep into my soul. They salve the wounds and soften the dry and cracked places. They heal. They correct with a perfect blend of grace and conviction. I can recount scores of verses that have provided comfort, correction, and timely guidance during times of struggle. My charge is to believe these words an then act as if they are true, even when my emotions tell me otherwise.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)

This post is part of 31 Days of Change. See the entire series here.

Choosing the wrong burden

In my prayer journal this morning, I mentioned a family by name who is struggling to receive the grace that is offered them in Christ. I scribbled the following words in my red moleskin, “Tweak their hearts and help them to see the glory of the cross, the weight of their sin, and the lightness of Christ’s burden.”

The last point resonated with me and I followed with, “Help me to see it as well. Remind us all that it is his yoke that is easy and his burden that is light.”

As much as this family needs to feel the lightness of Christ’s burden, so do I. So often I choose the carry the wrong burden. I feel the weight of the world on my shoulders, anxiety grips my heart and fear consumes my thoughts because I’ve chosen the path of unbelief. How often have I, out of concerns for my own life, my own family, my own provision picked up a burden of my own making instead of the burden of Jesus?

31days-2014-250How often have I failed to believe Him even though he promises that if I seek him first, he’ll take care of the rest? And yet, I struggle to believe that his burden will really be lighter than my own. Instead of choosing the path of open-handed love, I tighten my fists and cling to my own conceptions of enough instead of resting in the true abundance that is knowing Jesus. I’m stingy with my time, my money, and my affection as if holding onto those things will multiply them more than giving them away.

So today, I pray for those who struggle to see the beauty of abundance found in Christ and as I do, I add my name to that list.

This post is part of 31 Days of Change. See the entire series here.

When you change and they don’t

Reflections on Romans 14

31days-2014-250When we first come to experience a profound spiritual change, whether it be through an initial conversion experience or a subsequent deepening relationship with God, we are often shocked that others do not see with the same clarity what we have just come to realize.

It’s important to remember our former ignorance of spiritual things as we deal with others. We can quickly find ourselves impatient and unloving with those who have not yet discovered a truth that has become so dear and precious to us.

As we continue to grow in Christ, we realize there are truths that we have taken hold of that others cannot yet see. There are also those who have made spiritual discoveries to which our eyes are yet to be opened.

The spiritually mature determine not to pass judgement on others and resolve to never put a stumbling block in the path of one whose faith is weaker. This is the way of love. They say come alongside me as I share and celebrate the changes God is making in me. They build up the weaker believer and encourage her in the faith without disparaging her for discoveries yet to be made. They endeavor to become people of righteousness, peace, and joy as they walk together the road of faith.

This post is part of 31 Days of Change. See the entire series here.

Finding grace during the wait

31days-2014-250These days, inner change has been difficult. While the physical changes I’ve undergone have been plain for all to see, inwardly I feel as though change has ground to a halt.

My soul is fed not only by worship, prayer, and service but also by study. Yet, my mind has not been as sharp. My ability to focus has diminished. The deeply theological reading to which I am accustomed has been replaced by simple stories and novels. As a result I’ve been out of sorts.

The Christian life is meant to be one of outward focus, of love for God and others. The mercy of God compels us to consider the needs of others before ourselves. But by its very nature, pregnancy has moved me toward inward focus, my body imposing physical limitations that are foreign. Every sphere of life has felt the strain — work, home, and church.

Yet, there is grace. Words memorized long ago remind me that my standing before God is not altered by the tasks I accomplish in a day. This surprise event was known to the father long before two microscopic cells collided in sacred, hidden spaces. His promises are true not only for me, but for the little one we will soon meet. He knows me. He knows my boy. And it is good.

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you; (Jeremiah 1:5)

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

This post is part of 31 Days of Change. See the entire series here.

Unexpected change and longing

31days-2014-250“You don’t seem excited about it yet. I’m sure you will be soon.”

I’ve heard this comment from more than one person regarding the impending birth of our son. Every time I’m puzzled, wondering what they’re expecting to see.

Unlike our other three pregnancies, this one has been a surprise. Our lives were moving along quite nicely with 3 kids and a dog. We were settled and happy at our church. The kids were enjoying their schools. Life had fallen into rhythm. Then one Saturday morning in February, I fell asleep in the car on the way to a neighboring town. “That’s weird,” I said to my husband, “I think I got a good night’s sleep last night. Wonder why I’m so sleepy?”

I felt strange the rest of the day and by dusk I began to wonder, do some math, and question if there was more going on with my body than lack of sleep. I waited until Tuesday morning to take the test. The results were undeniable. Two pink lines. I walked into the bedroom and pitched the test toward my still sleeping husband and said, “Take a look at that.”

“You wouldn’t have shown it to me unless it had something to say,” he responded as he drifted to consciousness out of the fog of sleep.

That’s it. That how we discovered we were expecting this baby. No drama. No anticipation. No hoopla. I counted the months and realized the remainder of the year would be entirely consumed with a new baby. I snapped a quick photo of the pregnancy test and texted it to a friend a few states away. A week later, my daughter found the picture on my phone and asked if we were pregnant. So much for waiting until I was 12 weeks along to tell the kids.

Everything about this pregnancy has been harder. Its been fifteen years since I first carried a baby and my body daily reminds me of my age. Morning sickness was worse. Our little man has been low and heavy for a long time. Although I’ve been able to recognize that my mood swings have been influenced by hormones, there have been lots of tears.

As a result, when people ask if I’m ready for a new baby, my response is usually, “I’m ready to not be pregnant anymore.”

However, my displeasure with pregnancy is no indication of how I feel about actually welcoming a new tiny person into our family. The bassinet is assembled and waiting in our room. The hospital bag is packed and tiny clothes have been washed and folded. Receiving blankets are ready to receive and a swing stands ready to comfort its new occupant.

In my imagination, I can already hear the tiny grunts of a nursing infant. I can smell the unmistakable scent of downy newborn hair. And now that I’ve done this a few times, I look forward to the simplicity of mothering a newborn. Nursing him, changing him, napping with him, and comforting him. Though it’s physically demanding, parenting a newborn is much less fraught with uncertainty than parenting teenagers.

I’m also reminded, that just as a pregnant woman aches and groans to bring forth her child, so all of creation groans to see the return of its rightful king, to be born anew and remade into a world that is perfect and beautiful.

For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:22-25)

This post is part of 31 Days of Change. See the entire series here.

Leading lasting change {what I wish the experts had said}

31days-2014-250We were young, new to ministry, and unsure of how to do the work set before us. We felt untrained, unprepared, and unaware of how to meet the needs of a congregation, to lead a church, to move a body of believers from apathy to action.

A few times a year we would attend church leadership conferences. These events were a welcomed respite for a young pastor and wife. The worship was moving. The speakers were powerful. We listened carefully. We bought copies of sermons by leading pastors and listened to them as we drove. We made mental notes about casting vision, dealing with conflict, and planning outreach strategies. We felt ignorant and they were all so successful. We were convinced that ministry success was a process to be learned and a mystery to be solved. Surely these wise men could help us find the answers. We tried to follow their lead.

Twelve years later, we’ve changed. We see ministry differently. When I think back to those years of fumbling, I wish those men who spoke to our eager hearts and naive minds had given us a different message.

Leading in a local church isn’t about single-handedly determining God’s vision for his people and unilaterally charting a course for congregational success. It isn’t about casting a vision or having a perfect strategy. Leading a church, or participating in any God-driven endeavor, is first about your relationship with God Himself. A very close second is a love for and relationship with His people.

Our role is not to stand before a group of people and say, “This is the work that God has for us to do.” Our role is to stand before them and say, “This is the great God whom we follow. This is who he’s revealed himself to be. Draw near to him. Know him. Use your gifts in his service.” Our role is to use our gifts to their fullest and then to call on God’s people to do the same.

A miraculous thing happens when we take this approach. Patterns emerge. Ministries spring up organically from within the body as God’s people grow. Needs are met and love abounds. But those things don’t happen because the pastor dreams up an idea and dictates it needs to be done. They happen because God moves in the hearts of his people as they step out in love and obedience.

We’ve learned that lasting change does not happen by brute force. Attempts to strong-arm God’s people into a new way of life will result in broken relationships and embittered hearts. In the long-term, manufactured change requires more energy than is sustainable. When the leader is no longer able to manufacture the energy required to keep a movement going, people revert to their old ways and change is seen not as a work of God but a temporary discomfort for the people.

Today, we no longer measure progress by outwardly visible change. Our goal is to lead people toward hearts softened by God who seek His guidance in their daily lives. When the church lives that way, it will change. There are a few things my husband and I must do to foster this kind of environment.

We must love the people.

My husband must share the truth of God’s word from the pulpit.

We must live lives that are consistent with our understanding of who God is as revealed in the Bible.

When we focus on these things, real change happens and it’s a privilege to witness. Every day becomes an act of worship and as we see the big and small things God’s people are doing at his prompting. While we still often feel ill-equipped to address issues that arise, we have confidence in the God we follow. We’ve learned to trust his leading and to rely on him to resolve conflicts, to work in people, and to guide his church.

This post is part of 31 Days of Change. See the entire series here.