Soldiering through …

The following is written primarily for the people of Mosaic Church, whom I am honored to serve. I post it here as an encouragement to others who may be looking for words to share with their congregation in the wake of recent developments within the United Methodist Church (UMC). If these words help, feel free to use them.

Friends,
I am grateful for your good spirit. That you are reading this tells me you care about our community. Some of you have been aware of the UMC crisis for a while, but for those just now learning about it, thank you for taking a few minutes now to get acclimated. After reading this, don’t hesitate to call me if you’re left with questions. And remember our prayer gathering on Sunday, January 12 at 6:00 p.m. in the worship space. After a time of prayer, I’ll be glad to talk with anyone who has questions.

The news we received last week (you can read about it here, here, or here) about a new agreement for a denominational separation along theological lines comes to me as a deep relief. Having worked as a small part of a much larger group for several years toward some kind of resolution, I realize just how much time, energy, prayer, and even compromise — poured out on all sides of our current divide — it took to get here. Without context, the headlines in the national media might seem harsh and this plan to separate may come as a surprise. But for many who have been on this journey for years, this represents a significant and hopeful step forward.

Most headlines last week led with the idea that the crux of the crisis is a disagreement over the status and role of LGBT persons in the leadership of the church. I want to emphasize that in my experience, the crisis in the UMC doesn’t rest on one issue. Others would agree. David French, writer for the blog “The French Press” shares accurately in his post entitled, “The Sad, Necessary Division of the United Methodist Church”:

The secular media will cast the divide primarily in the terms it understands—as focused on “LGBT issues”—but that’s incomplete. The true fracturing point between Mainline and Evangelical churches is over the authority and interpretation of scripture. The debate over LGBT issues is a consequence of the underlying dispute, not its primary cause…there is a strain of Protestant Christianity that views the Bible as valuable but not infallible or inerrant. Evangelical Christians, by contrast, strongly dissent from that view.

That seems an accurate statement to me. Our divide has been forming for years over multiple issues that are very real and very deep. They strike at the fundamentals of historical Christian orthodoxy. How we interpret scripture and relate to the person and work of Jesus Christ is at the headwaters of this crisis, but it is also important to note that our inability to hold one another accountable where we disagree only exacerbates the problem. With no one willing to do the hard work of walking out decisions made by our General Conference, the result is a kind of anarchy that is excruciating.

In this rapidly changing denominational culture, we have all now come to the conclusion that the only way forward that holds integrity is to bless and send each other out — to separate. Toward that end, a high-level conversation led to the agreement or protocol that made the news last week. For what it is worth, I am on the executive council of the Wesleyan Covenant Association — a group formed within the UMC three years ago to represent a traditional, Wesleyan theological position — and in that role have had some access to this process of hammering out an agreement. I am as pleased with the agreement that has been reached as one can be, given the inevitable compromises. There are still many miles to go before General Conference approves that agreement in May (and many more miles afterward to flesh it out) but many of us believe there is enough agreement around the table to support this plan. I hope it will pass.

The United Methodist Church is my tribe, and I’ll be sad to separate from it. But before I’m a United Methodist I am a follower of Jesus. I will preach the faith of our fathers — a faith that billions have lived and died for. I will not step back from that gospel. It is life to me. It is life to us. It is our hope and our peace. Rest assured that our take on Christianity is not the minority report — though in our corner of the world it may seem that way. The vast majority of the global Christian Church embraces the historical position of the Christian faith.

Please pray for our UMC. These are hard days for many people. I sense the anxiety among my clergy colleagues and can’t imagine the stress our bishops must be carrying. There are so many more questions than answers for how this will play out structurally, and they have great responsibilities on their shoulders. If we can manage this well, however, our effort will be historic. We are all praying for a better witness than what we’ve had.

Mosaic’s Vision Team has been talking about the crisis in the UMC for several years. We have had multiple church-wide informational meetings. I’ve so appreciated your honest sharing through those conversations. It ought to come as a blessed relief that with approval of this agreement, we will be able to keep our assets, including our building. Having worked so hard for so long to buy and build this building and develop ministries with this space in mind, that’s something you deserve and I’m pleased it is now a realistic outcome. We will continue to pray and seek Jesus while we walk out the process of this proposed separation. And as soon as we at Mosaic are able to separate from the current UMC and become part of a new Wesleyan movement, I hope and pray we will do so enthusiastically. Remember: we have nothing to do but to save souls. Let’s spend and be spent in that work.

I think I can speak for our Vision Team and staff team today in saying that we grieve the pain of so many in the UMC who really don’t want any kind of separation. We also hear the words of Jesus who said of divorce in general that Moses allowed it only because of the hardness of our hearts. “But this wasn’t so from the beginning,” he said. If you’ve ever been divorced, you understand that sometimes the thing we want least is also the only option left. And sometimes that thing represents hardness. So we grieve the public witness of irreconcilable differences, even while we grieve a Church that has abandoned the historic faith. And I grieve my own shortcomings and the things I don’t even know that I don’t know. It seems right to approach anything like this with deep humility, understanding the impact it can have on a lost and hurting world.

One last word: For some within our church, this turn of events may not be good news. If that’s you, I hope you’ll hear that in our “house” we will always let the Holy Spirit lead as we pursue truth. We will always let grace shape our conversations, and we will always remember that the Christian life is a journey, not a moment. Where there are disagreements, may we give each other room to walk this out. Not one of us came clean to the Christian experience, and not one of us is finished yet.

I am so honored to serve as your pastor, and in these days especially, your faith and commitment to the gospel inspire me. Let’s be about our “one thing” and trust God!

Until all worship,
Carolyn

P.S. — More than 1500 churches and well over 100,000 people are being represented by the WCA. Our church is among its members. If you’d like to join personally, you can do so here. You’ll also find more information there about what is to come.

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Learning to Live with Loss

Loss is a normal part of life. On this side of Genesis 3, everyone has bad days, everyone grieves, everyone sins, everyone makes mistakes. In the final analysis, it isn’t if we will suffer, but what we do with it that counts. Healthy grief is an expression of the value of life — how much we treasure it, how much goodness and love we find in this life. When we grieve, we are fighting toward goodness and love. Here are a few ways that might help you in that fight:

First, find a way of praying that fits you for this season. Don’t worry about how anyone else prays, or even how you prayed on your good days. Find a way of talking to God that works for you now.

I discovered when my mother died that what used to work for me in my prayer life didn’t work for me in that valley. When she was most sick, I simply could not pray my own words. I remember telling my pastor I was out of prayers. But in my grief, I discovered the Psalms. I remember sitting in bed at night reading the Psalms and thinking how they said everything I could ever have wanted to say to God … and more. I fed on them. I hadn’t been a big fan before that but for the first time in my life, the Psalms really meant something to me.

Because the Psalms were written for people in pain, they might be a good starting place if you’re having a hard time praying right now. YouVersion has some great reading plans through the Psalms. One I’ve looked at that might work for you is called Journal Psalms. The last line of the first day is a keeper: “I don’t need to know why as long as I know the One who knows why.” Find a way of praying that fits you.

Let others pray for you. I actually think that’s what Paul was talking about when he said in Romans 8:26-27 that the Holy Spirit helps us in our distress. He says there will be times, “We don’t even know what we should pray for, or how we should pray. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. And the Father who knows all hearts knows what the Spirit is saying, for the Spirit pleads over us in harmony with God’s own will.”

There will be times when you won’t know what to pray. There may be times when the best you’ve got is groaning. When those times hit, be at peace. You’re in good company. Sometimes the Holy Spirit groans, too. In those times, don’t try too hard but do reach out. Ask others to pray for you, to hold hope for you. And ask the Holy Spirit to pray for you, too.

Be honest with God about your feelings. Curling up in a fetal position for the month of December, cussing out the cashier at Walmart, or checking out on folks who may just want to get you outside yourself for a few hours might all sound like good ideas right now, but they may not be your best options. When things feel desperate, remember that it is no shame to grieve and that while others may not get that, God does. It is okay to be honest with Him about your feelings, even if they aren’t sanctified. Psalm 23 tells us our shepherd will walk with us through the valley of the shadow of death. Sometimes that valley is spiritual and that shadow is doubt, but the word promises that even when we walk through the valley of death, he is close.

It is okay to be happy. I hope you have good days in this season. I hope you find reasons to laugh, to relax, to feel even for a few hours like things will be okay. When those moments strike, soak in them. It is okay to be happy, to remember the good things. The one you’re missing would surely want you to have good days and big smiles along the way.

So maybe you haven’t had losses this year but folks around you have. How can you best be with them in a season when you may not be in the same emotional spot? Here is one thought for you (or maybe a thought you can share with someone who is trying to help you in your grief): Try to understand, rather than fix. Clichés are not helpful, especially ones that have no basis in scripture. God does not need another angel (and if he does he can make one). Everything does not happen for a good reason. And even if God will give us strength to handle anything, we don’t always want to be strong. Those aren’t usually the best encouragements for someone who is grieving but being there is. Just being present may be the difference between depression and joy for someone who feels lonely. Why not call and ask a grieving friend to lunch or a movie or a walk or coffee. And if they decline, that’s okay. Reach out again in a week or so. Grief is funny: what we don’t want today (or just don’t have energy for) is exactly what we need next week). Be patient with those swings.

In Psalm 23, David paints for us a picture of a table laden with a feast, to which we are invited. Not only are we invited, but the psalm tells us our enemies have to watch while we eat. They don’t get to be there with us. Imagine that! There you are, at a table filled with good things, and all your griefs, sorrows and disappointments are not invited. You get to feast but your grief is not fed. Jesus invites you to feast, but your suffering and pain are not invited. Your spirit is being nourished at this table, while all that breeds death is being starved.

Imagine yourself there now, at this feasting table with Jesus. Will you thank him for this feast? Will you thank him for giving you a place at the table? Thank him for the feast of grace and righteousness that leads to life. Thank him for being your shepherd, your provider, your protector, your savior. Thank him for praying over you in groans when you grieve, and for not letting you stay in the valley but walking you through.

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Seven hopeful words for grieving souls

As the holidays ramp up, here are seven things we can know that speak hope to grieving or stressed-out souls:

God is good. C. S. Lewis was one of the top two or three theologians of the 20th century. He lost his wife after a late-life marriage and he dealt with that loss by writing a lot about grief. He would say of God, “God is not safe, but he is good.” I don’t know if that truth hits you like it hits me when I’m down, but when I am down that becomes a critical piece for me. My mom died while I was in seminary (I was 34) and I remember my professor asking in class one day to name the most fundamental truth about God. I answered immediately that God is good. He told me that no, the most fundamental statement is that God is love. Which I know but I remember thinking that day, “Nope. Not for me. Today, in order for me to trust God at all while I drive eight hours back and forth every weekend to see my dying mother, what matters most that God is good.” Whatever the end-game, I need to know that even if I don’t understand all that happens, the God over it is good.

God is alive. Visit a country that believes in ancestor worship or idol worship and you’ll see the stark difference between our brand of hope and theirs. Rows and rows of idols representing ancestors who have died (with rocks piled on them, which are the prayers of family members) and rows and rows of trees with wishes tied to their branches. Rocks praying to stones. Paper praying to wood. Meanwhile, we profess this radical truth, that Jesus in the flesh is seated at the right hand of God the Father. Hebrews 9:11 calls him the high priest of good things to come (Jesus is the high priest of hope!). Everything we believe hinges on this truth: “Because I live, you shall live also” (John 14:!9).

Death does not get the last word. Which is not at all the same as saying death doesn’t matter. It does. Your loss matters and your sorrow in the face of it is perfectly legitimate. It is okay to be sad and even to hold gratitude and grief in the same hand. One doesn’t cancel out the other. I read the story somewhere of this indigenous village in Australia. When someone in that village dies, everyone else in the village moves a piece of furniture from their house out into their front yard. So the next morning when the person who has lost someone wakes up and looks outside their house, all over the neighborhood there is furniture in the yard. The compassionate message being sent to the grieving one is that yes, the world has changed. It does not go on as if nothing has happened. We can acknowledge that things may never “get back to normal” without ditching all hope. We can learn to walk in gratitude toward all we have even while we carry our loss. Friend, your loss is noticed, it matters, and it might not be fixable. But it doesn’t get the last word. An empty tomb promises us that.

I can survive death … both now and when my own life is over. The Old Testament feasts teach us the power of remembering. They were given by God to help the Israelites act out and remember their story. In Exodus 12, God tells the people, “Eventually, you’ll have kids who won’t remember what we’ve been through, and they won’t be able move forward if you don’t show them where you’ve been.” Even today, when Passover is celebrated by Jewish people, the youngest person in the room has the privilege of asking this question to invoke the telling of the story of the Jewish people being delivered from slavery: “What makes this day different from all other days?” God told the Israelites, “When the children ask, you tell them, ‘We do this because God is great, because He brought us up out of our slavery into a desert and toward his promises.” Sometimes the way forward is best charted by remembering where we’ve been and who brought us through. Remembering, we learn, is part of resurrection. And sometimes remembering is how we get courage to keep going. Perhaps a good way to begin this season is by choosing something to remember and celebrate. Or ask a friend to sit with you so you can share memories together. The Bible teaches us that we survive not by distraction but by remembering.

I can know why, even if I can’t know why right now. Maybe the hardest part of grief is the mystery of it. We are so sure that if we could just know the “why” we’d feel so much better. Not knowing the “why” is hard. Why did I have to lose someone I loved so much? Why is my marriage loveless? Why do my children suffer with illness or disability? Why so much loss and emotional pain? The questions that don’t have answers can be so frustrating but as it turns out, truth is not a set of principles we can logic through to find relief. Truth is a person. Which means the answer to your “why” is “Who.” It is Jesus being willing to be with me in my grief, without words, unjealously, unswervingly, peacefully there. And it is Jesus who teaches me to be a friend to those around me. In the face of our own pain, God may not give us all the answers we’re hoping for but he gives us himself, which is so much better in the long run than the temporary fix of cheap advice. I can know why, but maybe not now and maybe not even in this lifetime. But as it turns out, knowing Who is enough.

I can hope without being disappointedif my ultimate hope is attached to the Infinite. God has been talking to me lately about the difference between fantasies and hope. I am a master at wanting things I can’t have. Not stuff, so much. But I’ll get some crazy idea about what success looks like and then I get so frustrated when that thing I dreamed up doesn’t happen. What I’m beginning to learn is that things I dream up and then desperately want have no substance. They never were true, are not true now and never will be true. Since there is no substance to an impossible idea, its only function is to frustrate. Meanwhile real hope — biblical hope, hope with substance to it — is rooted in Jesus and his Kingdom. The Bible actually puts it just that way: hope is the substance of things not yet seen (Hebrews 11:1). That means real hope — though it is still unseen by us — exists substantially in God’s Kingdom. For those who grieve, this is both challenge and good news. We may have to put to death our frustrated fantasies — the “if onlys” that feed our disappointment and discouragement — but we can hope again, if we are willing to hope away from those fantasies and toward Jesus and his Kingdom.

Life is worth the fight. This world and our place in it is worth fighting for. Even if we have suffered, we live in a world created by a good God who lives, and who invites us to live also. We live in a world being reclaimed day by day by a Savior who loves us and who invites us to the other side of sin, suffering, hopelessness, pain and death. We live in a world in need of what we bring to the table. A worship song I lean on (10,000 Reasons, by Matt Redman) has this verse about learning to praise God all the way through, in this life and in the life to come:

And on that day, When my strength is failing, The end draws near, and my time has come … Still my soul will sing Your praise unending, ten thousand years and then forevermore.

In a stressful and often lonely season, my you find so many good reasons to praise our good God and trust what he is doing … even if you don’t have all the answers.

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Church.

This message, preached at Mosaic a couple of weeks ago, is one I’d love for you to listen to. I love the Church, and I love talking about it, and I’m particularly grateful to serve where we practice being the Church every day, for the sake of sharing the gospel with a lost and hurting world. When you get time, listen:

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Pigs, Chickens and Leadership

Classic leadership riddle: In a bacon-and-egg breakfast, what’s the difference between the chicken and the pig?

Answer: The chicken is involved, but the pig is committed.

In leadership circles, the point is often made that we ought to find and develop people with pig-like commitment. However, I wonder about that. I can argue that idea both ways. On one hand, I want people around me who are committed to this cause to which I’ve given my life. People who own it. Absolutely, I want to serve Jesus with other people who are willing to die to self, take up a cross and follow Jesus. There is something to be said for the commitment of a pig. There is something to be said for a kind of all-in attitude that won’t take no for an answer and refuses to make excuses. This is what I want for myself and this is what I look for in people we hire at Mosaic and in people we invite into leadership. Pig-like commitment: Are you involved or committed?

On the other hand, there is this: a pig gives once. He may give a lot and it may be pretty awesome but at the end of his giving, he is done. There is nothing left. This is a one-shot gig for the pig, and not even a willing one. You might argue that the modern American pig is built for producing bacon, but I bet the pig would beg to differ. What the pig is doing is contrary to its nature. It doesn’t throw itself on a sword for the sake of your breakfast. This is a forced commitment.

What the pig does under great duress, the chicken does naturally. Laying eggs is what chickens are built to do. They live to lay eggs. And all things being equal, a chicken is compelled to keep laying, keep giving and giving. A chicken’s compulsion is not the same brand of compulsion as a pig, and a chicken isn’t done quite so quickly.

So who is the better player in this riddle — the pig or the chicken?

Here’s what I think. I think that as a leadership riddle, the answer is yes. A good leader has both the heart of a bacon-maker and the enthusiasm of an egg-maker — all in for the cause of Christ, but with delight and a sense of call to this work, to keep giving not out of obligation but with joy.

Are you a pig, a chicken, or — in the best sense of it — both?

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An Open Letter to Women Who Lead

A while back, a colleague reached out with deep frustration over some incident or another that caused her gender to bump up against her calling. I felt her pain. It is amazing how quickly a moment like that can set us back. Because I’ve felt her story and heard it from too many others, I suspect that my response to her may resonate with others who find themselves frustrated by life in a fallen world.

Friend,

I suspect you already know the stuff we all know: that we live in a fallen world; that we will struggle to make partnerships out of hierarchies on this side of Genesis 3; that “standing” in the Ephesians 6 sense of that word is hard as heck but still the best option we have in a fallen world.

Given all that, this would be my advice to you in a sentence: After you’ve done all you can do, stand. That is your call. Stand.

And I get it … standing can be tiring. And holding an uncomfortable position can be uncomfortable. An yes, it can get old and after enough of it we would rather just do our small work and grow old and bitter than keep rubbing against the grain. That is our choice, of course. But that is not the call.

The call is to stand. After we’ve done all we can do, stand.

So when hard things happen, go ahead and blow off steam and be angry and sound off, but then get back at it. Get back to making your stand for Christ. Learn winsome ways to make your point and stay in the game. The call doesn’t disappear and I can assure you that it is so much more frustrating to avoid a call than to deal with the pressures that incubate inside of one.

Stay in it. Stand.

Be angry at injustice and at the enemy of our souls who has found a foothold in gender inequity, but don’t assume we can win that argument and defeat something nearly as old as humanity, that somehow if we just say it right the thing will go away. This is human fallenness we are battling! It is in our DNA. Be angry about what the enemy has done to humanity, but don’t settle for the cheap way out by blaming Hollywood or government or worse yet, men in general. Don’t give room to defensiveness. Make sure your arguments are biblical, theologically sound, practical and most of all, that they come from a whole and holy place.

Because this thing we deal with is a fact of the fall (have I said that yet?). I assume it will be here until Jesus comes back. Our challenge is to learn how to navigate past it so we can do the things we’re called to. How do we as women support each other without competing or belittling or forgetting, or worse, stoking unholy fires by projecting? How do we raise up men by encouraging them to love and respect us as partners in the work of lifting up Christ, without competing with or belittling them?

Ed Stetzer says church planters are 400% times more likely to succeed if they know what they are up against. The Small Business Administration says much the same thing about entrepreneurs. Realism is an ally. So on the point of women as leaders, here’s what you’re up against:

  • Sometimes you will experience condescending attitudes from men who have no idea they are being condescending.
  • Sometimes you will experience the jealousy or competitiveness of women who have no idea they are broken in that way.
  • Sometimes you will experience subtle and even overt sexual advances by men who know what they are doing and by men who got broken as boys.
  • Sometimes you will be passed over by churches because you are female, because they are gripped by the spirit of fear.
  • Sometimes you will be invited to speak/ sit on the platform/ write/ participate for no other reason than that you are female (take it … every time, take it and be grateful; never mind their motives).
  • Sometimes you will experience lack of success because you are female, and sometimes because you’re not that great of a leader. And it will be hard to know which is which.
  • Sometimes you will feel crazy because when you verbalize your experience of any of the above, others will deny or minimize what you’re feeling. They’ll tell you you’re doing “just fine.” And you will feel crazy because what you know to be true is not validated.

All those things will happen to a woman who chooses the path of leadership. And we’re not just talking about Christian leadership, but leadership in general. Hundreds of studies in multiple fields bear out the fact that you will have these things in your life. Which is not to say men have no challenges of their own. Men have other things to deal with and we ought to be careful to hear them, too.

But friend, these are our things and they are not necessarily because you are not good enough, though it is possible you have placed yourself into something you’re not ready for. Your pain is not necessarily because you are not called or gifted, but please be sure that you are. The call of God is not for the faint of heart.

If you are called and gifted, then hear me: sometimes this call will be hard, Some things just are, because we live on this side of Genesis 3. As Paul said, we’re not battling flesh and blood but powers and principalities that want to take us down.

So now you know, which means you are 400% more likely to succeed because you can be in this with eyes wide open. You are more likely to succeed if you will seek your own healing, stop apologizing your way into rooms, and trust that if you’ve been invited to a table then you belong there. You are more likely to succeed if you will take responsibility for your own gifts and hone them so you’re making the most of the moment.

And listen: You can’t lose if you will spend your energy lifting up Jesus. Let him take care of your reputation. Your job is to stand. Witness to your creation-call by being good at it. And if you sense you’ve been given a prophetic voice to speak into this arena more boldly, then pray desperately for humility enough to stay under the Lordship of Christ so the unholy fires don’t burn up your message.

If my thoughts don’t settle well with you, then do your own research, find your own message … but either way, keep pursuing healing because the Kingdom is starving for warriors like Deborah — both women and men who are whole and holy, courageous and ready. And keep pursuing healing for your own wounds because healing is freedom. Whatever has happened to us, Jesus can return our souls to a place of peace. It has been liberating, after too many years of being fearful and defensive, to simply be at peace as a woman who loves Jesus and finds joy in leadership within His church. Praise God for the healing grace of Jesus that brought me this far and please, God! Heal me some more because I’m not nearly who You’ve designed me to be. Not yet. But I’m a Methodist, so I absolutely believe I’m getting there. And so are you, my friend. So are you. 

In all things may Jesus be praised! 

— Carolyn

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Don’t Sit Alone in Church (and other thoughts on corporate worship).

Here’s a lesson worth learning (for the story inspiring this thought, read here): God cares how we approach him in worship.

Meanwhile, a lot of what we American Christians spend our time thinking and worrying about  is first-world stuff. My friend in Nigeria tells me that Christians in his country wake up every day prepared to die while many in my country wake up frustrated by how slow the line at Starbucks is. We tend to judge churches by the quality of their donuts rather than the depth of their spirituality. Maybe this isn’t you … but you get my point.

Americans are truly graced by the options we have for worshiping together freely and without fear. It is a privilege we ought not take lightly. In that spirit, I want to challenge you to consider how you show up for worship and how you lean into it once you get there. Here are ten ways to lean in on Sunday mornings, so you’re all in as a full partner in building community among your people:

  1. Community is essential. Be in worship because we are not created to do this alone. And be a full participant when you get there because community is essential for discipleship and for rich and vibrant corporate worship. I believe the oncoming revival of the American Church will be its emphasis on partnership over presentation, each of us acting more like owners than renters of the space we take up in church.
  2. Leaning into community is a kindness toward your pastor. Everyone in the room participates more actively when every person participates. That means not sitting on the back row (which means leaving your rebellious spirit at the door). It means finding a few others to sit with so there is a sense of love and energy in the room. It means bringing your Bible and something to write on, and leaving your phone alone during worship (you know whether you’r actually looking at a Bible app or your facebook page …). All this is a kindness toward the one who has labored over a message, and who will stand up and look out on a crowd of people who speak volumes by their posture about the state of their hearts.
  3. Leaning in is a kindness toward your worship leaders. The mostly volunteer team that leads fully half of a worship service has worked hard to develop a set of songs to lead us into the presence of God. These folks give of themselves week after week, and through the discipline of leading worship they grow in their own spiritual lives. They want that for you, too. Get close enough to that fire to be warmed by it.
  4. Be a visual aid to newcomers. Show them what you want them to believe about your church, namely that you love each other. Don’t be under any illusion that where you sit doesn’t matter to a newcomer. I remember visiting a church some years ago, and thinking to myself as I walked in, “These people are angry with each other.” It was a large sanctuary, only half-full of people. As the congregation had dwindled, those who remained kept their usual seats. The effect was about five small pockets of people with huge gaps between them. I found out they were not at war with each other, but my first impression was that they were.
  5. Create energy. It is a fact that people sitting in close proximity to one another will create more energy than people sitting apart. For some reason, this is an uncomfortable barrier to cross when folks walk into a room, but if you can get people to sit together it creates great energy. And this is a way every single person in a church can participate in changing the spiritual atmosphere in worship. Just make it a point to sit with others. What could be simpler?
  6. Mess with the enemy’s plans. He’d rather you sit as far from each other as possible. If you can judge each other, even better. Separate the coals so the fire cools more quickly. May I also say very lovingly that if you are stubborn about it, that resistance may well be a gift to the enemy who loves a rebellious spirit.
  7. Don’t leave a single person lonely. Our church serves quite a few single adults, so I’m aware of their lifestyle challenges. Some have shared just how old it gets having to go places alone. Many confess chronic loneliness. It is hard going places alone, and even harder when you get there to sit awkwardly by yourself while others enjoy talking and catching up. A great gift you can give to another single person (whether you are single or married) is to sit next to someone sitting by themselves. Then get to know them.
  8. Be the Christian in the room. Christians love beyond good sense. Christians believe in the power of community. Christians show care and concern for those around them and for those on stage. Christians get outside themselves and think more of others than of themselves. Christians take time to know others and find out their needs. If you walk into a room, sit by yourself, and passively receive through the entire worship service, how will anyone know you’re a Christian?
  9. Be there for someone else, believing that one day they’ll be there for you. Sometimes we go to church for ourselves, and sometimes we show up for others. There are days I’d rather not go … and I’m the pastor! But I know that if I don’t show up, others will miss me.
  10. They call it corporate worship for a reason. Worship together, and let your praise be your witness.

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The difference between spiritual friendship and friendly conversation

Today, I give this space to Rev. Christopher Goss, who serves on our team at Mosaic as the Pastor of Worship Arts, Youth, and Young Adults. I can personally attest to Chris’s passion and pursuit of spiritual friendship. His words here are good wisdom for group and ministry leaders about the challenge to “go deep.”

A while back I saw a cute, satirical video called “Shallow Small Group.” It was a group of people gathered in someone’s home for what looked like a typical suburban church small group. As you would expect, the conversation was not very deep and there seemed to be a much greater focus on the presence of the cheese dip than the presence of the Lord. The tagline of the video is “Shallow Small Group, because when people go too deep they drown.” 

As a student and young adult pastor, I have been given the privilege of helping many young and mostly single people develop community in the church. I frequently think about the question, “What should make friendships in the church different and deeper than any other friendships?” Although there are many “right” answers to this question, the most fundamental answer must be that spiritual friendships are friendships that are, in the words of Paul, “in Christ.” 

This might be obvious, but it’s worth stating that spiritual friendships, in a Christian context, will most deeply flourish between Spirit-filled people. What seems to often go overlooked, however, is how developing your personal spiritual life gives you the opportunity to develop an incredibly rich social, spiritual life. Knowing that, how do we so often miss it?

Far too often we use what could be called an “external use of scripture.” For example, imagine you and I are in a small group that is doing a study on the Book of Romans. I skim through the study just enough to discuss what the author wrote.  Then I show up and make comments about what Paul actually meant by the word “predestination.” I like discussing theology so I would personally enjoy this conversation. If I’m not careful, however, I could learn a lot about predestination and virtually nothing about your personal spiritual life. Furthermore, by talking about “predestination” I could keep you from knowing much about my spiritual life. Worst of all, I could actually use a theological conversation to keep you from knowing that I truthfully don’t have much of a personal spiritual life. Is this spiritual friendship or a book study with some intellectual stimulation?

After our study, we might hang around and socialize a bit, but now its cool to talk about “whatever.” I’m from Georgia, so talking about “whatever” means its time to talk about UGA football. Suddenly I discover that I have a “connection” with some of the guys in the room that I did not have before. Please understand that I love football and enjoy a good conversation about the Dawgs, but this is not spiritual friendship. At this moment, I am having the same type of conversation in church that I could just as easily be having at a sports bar. 

(Not so) Side note: Tim Keller says, “Idols aren’t necessarily bad things. They can be good things that we make into ultimate things.” An idol is whatever we look to, other than God, to provide a sense of love, joy, peace, and fulfillment in our lives. What is almost always true, however, is that I will either get my sense of love, joy, peace, and fulfillment from God or I will inevitably search for it in another direction. That means I will either seek after God or I will seek after idols. There is no “neutral” gear in the spiritual life. 

What does that have to do with spiritual friendship? I might tell you, “I wish I had more time to spend in the word and in prayer.” But what I won’t tell you is that I would have that time if I spent less time on my ESPN app. Or that our conversation about the Dawgs might simply be encouraging our mutual idolatry. This unfortunately builds a friendship more rooted in a particular idolatry than “in Christ.” It is deceptive; because it happens in a church context it passes for “Christian fellowship” while sadly missing the mark of true discipleship. Does that mean we ought never talk about football at church? Nope. Just that I can spend a lot of time deflecting so I don’t have to confront my shallow faith or faltering disciplines. In other words, more time on cheese dip than the presence of the Lord.

So how does one build true spiritual friendships that give us the powerful intimacy for which we so deeply long? Here are a few thoughts:

Friendships that are “in Christ” are rooted in solid theology. That’s right, good friendships need good theology. Biblical friendship flows from the cross of Christ. That first and foremost proclaims we are all sinners in need of a savior. Biblical friendship believes “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” and therefore it is ok to be honest about the fact that I am not ok. We need a theology that says conviction is a good thing because where there is no conviction there is no sanctification … that I’m still on the road to Christian perfection, but I am made right through the righteousness of Christ alone.

Mature, spiritual friendships are rooted in a theology that says we are beloved children of God. To be a child of God means we primarily get our spiritual “life” — love, joy, peace, and fulfillment — from God our Father. That means I am responsible for seeking out life-giving encounters with God — encounters that throughout church history have most reliably come through searching the scriptures and spending time in prayer. These encounters create a rich personal spiritual life that now make it possible to have an incredibly rich social spiritual life. 

Spiritual friendship requires a theology that says, “I’m not only saved from sin, I’m saved to a body of believers.” Like organs in the physical body, we are responsible for receiving life and then sending it on to others. We encourage our young adults to BYOSL (bring your own spiritual life). Bringing your own spiritual life means we seek God on our own and then share the fruits of that seeking with the community. We must be aware, however, that if we are not receiving our life from God, it is possible we are instead passing on the toxicity of our idolatry to those around us. 

By God’s grace, I pray you will build spiritual friendships, where you fearlessly talk about both your need for God’s redemptive grace and how God is powerfully providing that grace through the “means of grace.” As you bring your own spiritual life to your small group I believe you will have conversations that will be deep, intimate, and mature, and that will encourage you and others to grow in the art of holiness.  

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Praying Against the Spirit of Offense

I’m thinking about a dog we used to have. Opie had a serious vet phobia. Consequently, when it dawned on him that this “awesome trip in the car” was actually a “catastrophic trip to the vet,” his world collapsed. He always made it worse than it had to be. He’d have panic attacks and become hostile. Frankly, he made the experience a little embarrassing for the rest of us.

One time, the vet told me that my dog’s dramatics were likely for my benefit, to get my sympathy and convince me to flee the wrath to come. She suggested that maybe if I wasn’t with him he might not act like that. So the next time we went to the vet I handed him over as soon as we walked in the door. They took him back to some room where he was to be examined alone, without his mama.

Here’s what happened. I sat in the  waiting room with half a dozen strangers and their pets, listening to the closest thing I’ve ever heard to a scream coming out of a dog’s mouth. Over and over. Screaming. It sounded like something out of an African jungle or a horror movie. Because I knew that voice, had heard it on the way to lots of things Opie was averse to, I knew he wasn’t being tortured but the others didn’t know. I felt especially sad for the animals in the room who surely wondered what this meant for them when it was their turn. Everyone listened anxiously while I flipped through magazines pretending I had no clue whose poor animal it was.

Then the vet came out and said, “Mrs. Moore, here’s the thing. We haven’t actually been able to touch your dog yet.” All that screaming, and he hadn’t yet even been examined. Bless him.

My friends, can I say with all gentleness and respect that some of us have an inner Opie who is so sensitive, so overcome by the spirit of fear, that offense is the only operating principle inside of us? We feel attacked ten minutes before anything actually happens. We feel attacked even when we’re not being attacked.

The spirit of offense is a master at making mountains out of molehills, and will then convince us we are justified when we insist on climbing the mountain we’ve made. There is a shopping term for this: “post-purchase rationalization.” It is what happens when we buy things impulsively (think “Black Friday”) and then for the rest of the day justify the purchase to friends and family. “This case of 100 flyswatters at 75% off was the best deal ever!” We justify even when it is irrational. Or maybe particularly then. Which is why the very act of justification around issues of anger or offense ought to be a trigger for us to go looking for our truest motives.

Maybe its not them. Or not all them. Maybe it is us.

On this point, I am a chiefest of sinners. I justify my behavior even as I storm around, deeply offended by every sleight and even every rumor of a sleight. So I’m not alone in my offended state, I will even stir others up. I’m the master at spreading my anxiety around. I consistently neglect my own counsel: in the absence of information, assume others’ good intentions.

I don’t want to imply that nothing is ever what it seems. Some people have genuinely done us wrong. Some people have messed with us beyond good sense. Some people in our lives require good boundaries, not just for our sake but for theirs.

But sometimes we allow that spirit of offense to rally our inner Opie — this thing in us that is wounded and scared and believing the worst and who wants to convince us of lies that will keep us mired in offense. Meanwhile, the clear slant of scripture is always toward forgiveness, always toward grace. Walking in forgiveness by obedience over feeling will require us to silence the voice of our inner Opie. It will require a sober submission to Paul’s advice. “Inasmuch as it is up to you, live in peace.”

And sometimes, restoration begins not with two or three external witnesses but with the internal witness of the Holy Spirit. In his presence, we are invited to call out the spirit of offense and mute it so it no longer has power to speak its lie and spread its anxiety. In prayer, it is just that straightforward: “Jesus, please call out the spirit of offense that is wreaking havoc on my soul. Remove it from my life and take away all its power. Deal with me on this issue and help me place this moment into a Kingdom frame so that in my heart and behavior, I’m not jerked around by the enemy of my soul who is whispering in my ear what he’d rather me believe. Amen.”

If you’re anxious or dealing with anger today, make this prayer your first priority. Chances are, things are not what they seem. You will not die, even if there is pain involved in what’s ahead. And maybe, just maybe, there will be far less pain than the negative voices predict.

Listen: No one is helped by an Opie attitude that generates fear and dread when its only a trip to the vet.

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Suicide and the Enemy of Our Souls

I wrote this blog some time ago, after a friend emailed to share her grief over a family member’s loss to suicide. In the wake of recent stories, it seems appropriate to share this piece again, with the hope that it might bring some balm to those who struggle to make sense of such hard loss:

Some time ago, a friend lost her sister to suicide. She wrote to ask, “Do you think it is possible that the enemy has kept me down and in such a battle for the last year or two so he could keep me from being there for my sister?”

When devastations like suicide drop into our lives, we’re left with far more questions than answers, not to mention the guilt and so often, such a sense of powerlessness. Stretching to make sense of a tragic event, we tend to grab at answers only to find straw. This is how I responded to my friend’s question. Maybe my answer to her will help someone plagued with grief, pain and questions in the wake of such loss:

Dear friend,
So good to hear from you and good to hear your heart. I appreciated so much that you took time to share with me where your thoughts and struggles have been in these last few weeks. I’ve been praying for you and now I know how to pray more specifically. It sounds like you and your family have been under attack in a lot of ways — much more it seems, than your sister’s death. I’m so sorry.

I loved one statement you made in your note. You said that even if you and your family let your sister down, Jesus never did and even his faithfulness didn’t make a difference in her decision. That’s a profound insight…

In your question, I hear the trails of guilt. I wonder if that is an inevitable side effect of suicide. Feelings of guilt among survivors seem to be common. With all the love, respect and grace we can give to those who lose their battle with depression, we must also acknowledge that suicide leaves a huge burden for the living to carry. God, your sister’s circle of friends, your family, you … everyone grieves this loss.

I’ve praying about what is truth in your situation since that’s what you are seeking. I probably only know things you already know, but here’s where my mind has been as I’ve prayed for you.

As her sister, you would have given anything to be more than you were — or more of what she needed — in her darkest days. To know more. Anyone in that situation would feel the same. “If only we had known…” And it would be tempting to find your place in the midst of her despair, even if only to say that the enemy separated you from her when she needed you most. That’s a normal and natural thought, I’m guessing.

Be wary, though, of putting yourself into her equation. This is her story, not yours. As humans, we tend to see things with us at the center, or at least close to it. But what if the realization you’re wrestling with is not that you could have done more (“If only I’d been more present, less busy …”) but that you didn’t have power to do more? What if, no matter what your personal circumstances, your sister’s mental illness was beyond her ability to survive it? In much the same way that a cancer victim’s illness can be beyond their ability to survive it …

It boggles the mind (doesn’t it?) to acknowledge just how little power we actually have in the face of some cancers, some accidents, some mental illnesses. “In this world, you will have trouble,” Jesus said, because the world is fallen and we’re imperfect and it is simply the case that not everything can be fixed this side of heaven.

Some things happen in spite of us and when it comes to mental illness, some things can’t be explained. Reason doesn’t apply. One plus one doesn’t equal two for a person whose mind is ill. Maybe there was no amount of time or energy anyone could have given until your sister was free of the illness that conquered her. Until we’re in the presence of Jesus, I doubt any of us will understand just how personal and complicated that battle was for her.

Thanks for sending the picture of your nieces and nephew. There is family here to love, family here to breed hope. I love that even in the midst of your grief, God is sending signs to assure you that there really is no such thing as no hope. Jesus is our assurance of that. I hope the family in that picture can look around them and see reason for hope in their love and care for each other.

Your sister may be gone from this world, but her life matters. As you continue to listen and look, I believe God will give you signs of assurance — that in ways we cannot begin to fathom, she is in his care. Suicide is not the unforgivable sin; I have to believe that God’s mercy takes special care with those who are not just bruised but mentally broken by this life. His hand is over your sister’s soul, much like his hand was over Moses as he crouched in the cleft of a rock, in search of a glimpse of glory in the midst of despair.

Be at peace. Rest in the mysteries of the Kingdom of God, and as Ranier Maria Rilke once powerfully wrote, “be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart.” God will, in his time, make all things new.

Peace to you — Carolyn

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