I am human

In case you didn’t know, I’m human. Sometimes I have to remind myself…is that crazy? I’m not a savior, I’m not immortal, and I’m definitely not perfect. I am needy and unable to fill myself…no matter how much coffee I drink, no matter how many books I read, no matter how good I am.

Lutheran pastor, Nadia Bolz Webber says in her book Pastrix, “being good has never set me free the way truth has.” How profound to realize that Jesus didn’t say that you will know how to be good and it will set you free…he said that you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.

I started 2018 with a month of fasting. So many people asked why…and I think it’s a valid question. But now that it’s over, I feel like I have to show something for it, prove what it produced in my life. But I didn’t have a purpose that seemed to satisfy those questions. I wanted to begin the year acquainted with truth. I wanted to embrace truth and drink deep of the freedom from fear, striving, perfection and performance. Could I have done that without denying meat, bread, sugar and coffee? Sure. But there is something about the discipline of saying no to something with the intention of reminding myself to seek truth that sets me free. In doing so, I did become aware of some things in my life.

I realized how desperate I am for Sabbath. I realized that my hesitance to help others often comes from my attempts to self-protect. I realized how bent I am to believe lies about my worth and purpose which causes me to distance myself from truth and love. I realized that it’s better not to speak if I have not spent time bathing in truth.

And I remembered that I am human. And the depth and intensity of the human experience requires fierce emotion and intentional reflection. It deserves more than religious platitudes that are uncomfortable with the reality of struggle and pain. It deserves brutal honesty and relentless truth. I’m ready for the church to be more interested in truth than being good and having right answers. I’m ready for Christians to be the most honest people in the world, not trying to impress people by looking and sounding really spiritual.

I don’t know about you, but I cannot survive in this world by just being good or looking good. I need truth to pierce my soul and soften my heart. I need quietness to make room, inviting and welcoming truth because the lies are rudely intrusive and insolent.

I’m thankful that truth is available to me in Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Son of humanity. Though I am poor and lowly, the God of the universe has mercy on me and offers me life and freedom if I’m willing to receive it.

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Closing out another year

It’s that time again…to reflect upon this last year before I start planning out the next one. I can be so quick to move on that I don’t always take the time to remember and reflect. 

When I think about 2017, I think about my wedding and beginning a new season of life that I had hoped for and dreamed of for so many years. This year has many reasons to be celebrated and remembered. Promises fulfilled, hopes and desires satisfied.

But when I really challenge myself to think about what transpired in 2017…I remember a lot of pain, a lot of courage, a lot of fear, a lot of injustice. The ugliest and dirtiest side of America was exposed this past year. Stories of hate, sexual harassment and abuse, senseless acts of murder. And it wasn’t only in the media that I witnessed this. I had long conversations with dear friends about sexuality, women’s rights, and white privilege. I learned of another friend taking his own life. I heard surprising stories from close friends  when they found the courage to say “me too”. I recalled painful memories of my own though I never came out and said “me too”.

This week I watched the movie Spotlight for the first time. It’s about the exposure of child abuse and pedophilia in the Catholic Church in Boston. Obviously, the movie and the true story are disturbing and disheartening. There is one quote that I will always remember: “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse them.”

To me, that means we all play a part in this story. All of our stories are interconnected and we are each impacted by the other. I cannot look the other way because injustice is happening in places of power, religious or political. When I remain silent or desensitized, I perpetuate the system of abuse, racism, and injustice.

So even though some nasty things were exposed this year, I am thankful. Because now we can no longer pretend it doesn’t exist. My prayer is that I do not become so overwhelmed and absorbed by these stories that the weight and significance is lost. My prayer is that I am angry rather than indifferent toward injustice and my response is active rather than stagnant.

By the end of 2017, it is safe to say that I have steadily withdrawn any hope in worldly institutions or power. I have been reminded again and again who truly holds all power and who truly has the final say. I have been convinced that God is my only hope and my only refuge. And God’s ambition is to be a parent to the parentless, to defend the weak and powerless, to bring justice and healing to those who are broken.

His law is love and his gospel is peace.

 

If God comes to you, let him in.

Today I cried in church. Not just like a single tear that I could quickly wipe away before anyone noticed. But a cry that bubbled up from within me that I couldn’t control.

It was the first time in a while and there was nothing special about the music or the preaching. Instead it was God’s presence that came so close to me.

I was overcome with God’s goodness. I can’t describe the way I catch my breath or how my insides begin to feel warm, but all I know is that God is so beautiful and so kind. His hand like a sword cuts through the exterior, the ego, the shields, the barricades and reaches directly to the rawness of our hearts.

Jesus sees the heart.

I don’t know how to say that in a way that sounds as profound as it was to me this morning. I don’t know how to communicate that Jesus is not weird or rude or exclusive or confusing or condescending. Jesus sees human hearts. And he loves them. He loves me. This love is not the kind of love that comes with conditions or benefits. It’s completely self-giving, for the sake and integrity of love.

Not only that, but God came to find me. No matter what accusations were thrown at him or what perceptions were given to him, he still came for me. And the presence of his goodness filled me with light and love and peace.

When I remember how I lived before I knew the goodness and kindness of God, my heart winces with painful memories of trying to prove myself or earn my worth. When I think about beautiful people who do not know God or believe that God is boring or malicious or patronizing, I’m overwhelmed with sadness.

If there is anything that I want people to know it is this: God’s love is better than anything in this life. It is worth giving everything for and receiving. If God comes to you, let him in. 

Law & Grace

Lately, there’s been a passion in me to faithfully read the scriptures of God. I say that because it is easy to get swirled up in hype and forsake the beauty and power of an ancient, sacred, and holy scripture.

Last night I was at an amazing worship event where God spoke deep revelation to my heart and I basked in his presence. Then a pastor from LA with ripped jeans and a strange Southern/hipster accent spoke about Jesus and grace coming near to us. I was on board with that. YES, God came near to humanity, God came to earth and lived with us and among us. It is powerful to know the initiation and the pursuit of God coming to us out of love.

But then he began to paint this picture of the law of Moses as something at odds with grace. The teacher and preacher in me starts to rattle a little because it just does not do the scriptures justice.

I don’t doubt that God still met people there because probably 50-100 people accepted the grace of God in their lives. That is amazing and I’m so thankful! My prayer is that those people seek to know the goodness and holiness of the ancient texts instead of discarding them as the “old law”.

Here is the thing. People love to hate the law and love grace. This exposes a deep misunderstanding not only of God’s word but of God’s heart! How can the law of Moses be summed up? When Jesus answered this question he was quoting directly from the law. “Love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut. 6:4). Jesus adds “and love your neighbor as yourself” but that is also a summation of the law. The law teaches to not withhold your help from your neighbor and to look out for the stranger, the orphan and the widow (Deut 10:17-19; 22:1-3).

The law was not given to enslave or put God’s people into bondage. It was a gift, an identity received after their liberation to remember who they were and who their God was. This is how the world would know that these were God’s people whom he delivered and rescued from the land of Egypt. This is how a bunch of slaves would become a nation and that nation would be a blessing to all other nations. Again and again the law says “remember.” Remember that it was the LORD who delivered you. Remember that you were once slaves, but now you are free. The law served as a remembrance of identity, belonging and purpose.

It’s clear through history and felt-board Bible stories that sin was crouching at the door, corrupting us and vandalizing the shalom of God – the way God intended things. The law was good and pure, but it wasn’t strong enough. We were tempted, seduced and led back into the chains of slavery by sin.

So my point is this…don’t hate the law, hate sin. It is sin that brings death, the law only reveals that. And what the law could not do, being weakened by our flesh, God did…by coming to us in the flesh to battle and overcome the power of sin and death.

The law could not save us from sin and death, but grace came near. Thank you Jesus for coming so near to us, for clothing yourself with flesh and suffering at the hands of your own people. You conquered the sinful flesh with its death sentence and you shared your victory with all of humanity. My life and my freedom is found only in Christ.   Amen.

To fight or To make peace?

That’s the question I’ve been tossing around and somewhat wrestling with lately. You might think you’re reading a blog about war or civil rights or a rant on Trump. But no, this blog isn’t about any of that. (thank God…am I right?)

It’s a little more spiritual. It’s a little more personal.

First, let me start by saying that I believe in a God of miracles and supernatural activity. I have seen ankles, knees, and deaf ears healed right before my eyes. I have met people who experienced real miraculous healings of cancer. I have seen people tormented by evil spirits get set free by the name of Jesus. I have seen and heard story after story about the power of prayer and the intervention of God in the lives of humans. I know that God loves to heal and that his mission is to set us free.

But what about when he doesn’t heal? What about the prayers that have been prayed for 25+ years? What about the suffering that envelops the lives of good, honest, faithful people?

Is it always God’s will to heal and deliver RIGHT NOW?

There are some circles of thought (that I’ve been a part of) that would gasp at that heretical question and be quick to answer YES! And if you aren’t experiencing that healing or deliverance, you just have to believe that you already are healed.

I won’t mock or belittle that belief. Because I am convinced that our modern minds often keep us from seeing any possibilities apart from our own reason. Yet, the postmodern mind isn’t convinced by such an absolute answer and wonders about the uniqueness in each individual story.

I’ve heard it said that Americans (maybe Westerners) have a poor theology of suffering. I would add that this is partially due to a poor understanding and practice of faithfulness. One of my favorite quotes comes from the book, The Heavenly Man. It is the story of Brother Yun, who experienced severe persecution in China for being a following of Jesus. He says, “Don’t pray for the persecution to stop! We shouldn’t pray for a lighter load to carry, but a stronger back to endure! Then the world will see that God is with us, empowering us to live in a way that reflects his love and power. This is true freedom!”

So where do we begin to engage in a dialogue that may unlock fears, anxieties, and doubt? Do we fight or do we make peace?

My “suffering”, if it is even appropriate to use the word, is physical and emotional. Emotional because I struggle with extreme highs and extreme lows. Navigating through those seas of emotion can be exhausting and discouraging. Physical because my spine is curved and causes consistent discomfort and pain in my back, neck and shoulders. I cannot count the number of times I have received prayers of healing, prophetic words, and even experienced the power of the Holy Spirit on my back. Yet, still I am not healed.

It’s left me in a vulnerable place asking: Do I keep holding onto the belief that God will heal me, fighting to remain faithful in my request? Or do I lay down all my efforts and quiet all my pleading, making peace with God and my body?

I’m not sure if it’s possible, but I have landed somewhere in the middle. I’m not mad at God for not healing me yet, but I continue to hope that he will. I don’t think he is maliciously withholding something good from me, but I know that I’m seen and loved. Sometimes I battle furiously for my emotional and physical health. Other times, I find peace in the unending streams of grace and mercy that wash over my broken spirit and body.

God is far too mysterious for me to know exactly what he will do. I am far too limited to know what should be done.

So if I fight, I will fight to be faithful despite my circumstances. And if I make peace, I will make peace with a God whose love gives me a hope far greater than this world.

Oh yeah, that’s how I got here

There is not a time I can remember that I did not know God. I learned about him from the very beginning of life but I also knew him personally. It is one of those things that I cannot explain with reason or understanding. One of my earliest memories is being three years old and standing alone in the hallway of my childhood home, closing my eyes and talking to Jesus. I was asking him to be in my life and with me forever. He responded and has been faithful to my request throughout my years. My family and my childhood were built around church and I was taught virtues and a strong work ethic that have helped shape me and develop me. Though I knew God before I had any real understanding of right and wrong, somewhere along the way I started to think that the rules mattered most to him and secretly feared that my imperfections were disappointing to him.

As a child, I knew that I loved to teach but I thought every kid wanted to play with a white board and explain math problems to her stuffed animals. I had a peculiar opportunity to teach my Sunday school class at my Southern Baptist Church when I was in middle school. I think the teacher was trying to prove a point because I made a bratty comment about how teaching these lessons couldn’t possibly be that hard. He handed me the lesson book and said, “Why don’t you prepare next week’s lesson then.” To be honest, it was easy and I loved every minute of it. I loved the activity that allowed my peers to come to their own conclusions about the scripture in the lesson. I loved doing something that I was able to do well. Most of all, I loved the positive response of the students, especially those who appeared to be indifferent toward God. Maybe it was the bag of snickers that won them over, but either way I was overjoyed by the success.

The years between that moment in middle school and the moment I officially began a life of ministry carried pain and heartache. In the midst of it, I seemed to have lost my way in rebellion and stubbornness but God was ever-present and continually faithful to his purpose in my life. When I came to a full surrender of a life of ministry, I was comfortable with that looking like a life of prayer, serving the poor, comforting the hurting, and teaching with passion. Although this is clearly the life of a pastor, I did not see pastoral ministry as my calling. The thought of female pastors made me uncomfortable and I did not have a balanced theological understanding for gender roles in the Church. I called myself a missionary or a teacher or a prayer warrior, but never a pastor. A pastor was the leader of the church who was, in my mind, always male.

My worldview expanded as I traveled and studied and learned from people who didn’t see gender as a stumbling block for pastoral ministry within a church. While preaching in Africa, I rediscovered my love for teaching Scripture and watching the Word of God land on people’s hearts in a way that transforms life. I remember the pastor of a church in Ghana sitting in the front row with a huge smile on his face, almost jumping out of his plastic chair as he affirmed my sermon with a loud “Amen!” While leading a group of missionaries, I found my prophetic voice and my desire to lead people into deeper intimacy with God. My spirit came alive as I proclaimed freedom from the old self and the discovery of fulfillment in Christ and his calling.

I came to seminary with a passion to lead and preach within a local church, to remove the stumbling blocks that keep us from living an abundant life. Confronting my own lack of discipline and self-care has left me incredibly humbled. While the work of unpacking the pains and heartaches I’ve purposely avoided and experiencing the exhausting realities of church work has left me somewhat discouraged. My experience of these revelations isn’t any different from stories I’ve read from other pastors. The passion and the zeal of young people entering ministry can be easily quenched and replaced with complacency and apathy.

In my short experience of this, I have seen my need for truth and revelation of God’s word as it relates to me. I have wrestled with the possible contradiction to Philippians 2:4, but I have found that if I do not tend to my own soul and give attention to my own needs, I am not very helpful to others. If I do not preach the gospel to myself and encounter the word of God for myself, I have nothing to give away to others. In order to truly look out for the interest of others before my own, I must contend for the health of my spiritual life.

I learned about my poor self-care as I sat in a counselor’s office trying to sort through my anxiety and panic attacks after three tumultuous years working with a Christian missions organization. It was like my counselor ripped the blinders off of my eyes when she said to me, “You know, Bethany, boundaries protect what we value. You are valuable and worth protecting.” In another session she asked me, “Can you expect others to respect your boundaries, if you do not respect them?” This began my journey with boundaries and loving myself enough to take care of myself. I am still walking this journey and fail often. I am making the effort, not to be perfect, but to be kind to my imperfect self. Is it possible to unlearn years of striving and return to that place as a three-year old in the hallway asking Jesus to be with me forever? I am learning that it is only when I accept the gifts of mercy and grace from God that I can extend those gifts to others.

It is only in the humility of my own weakness and inadequacy that I am able to lead others to drink from the same water of life. Although I can read it in endless amounts of books, daily I must remind myself that I am not the Savior, but the saved. I am not the light; I am only a witness to the light. Knowing my tendencies and weaknesses intimidate me as I walk into a life of full time ministry.

The renewing mercies with each sunrise gives me comfort and hope to faithfully serve God’s people and embrace the calling he has for my life.

Thank You 2016

Merry -two days after- Christmas!

For the last five years, I have included with my Christmas card/newsletter/blog a brief look at the previous twelve months. This year, I didn’t do Christmas cards and I didn’t write a newsletter. I didn’t even blog before Christmas came and went. But I did reflect on the last year and I’m filled with thankfulness.

2016 was good to me. God once more proved his faithfulness and his kindness. The theme of my life this year was NEW. I did a lot of new things. I asked myself often, “When was the last time I did something for the first time?” That question defined my year and gave me a year of adventure, accomplishment, and fun! Here is the annual sneak peak:

JANUARY: I started training for a half-marathon!

FEBRUARY: I went on an ambiguous non-date with a charming and handsome man from my church. By the end of the month, that man was my boyfriend.

MARCH: I ran my first half-marathon…something I never thought I could do!

APRIL: My favorite memory from April was a 90s Dance Party at a local bar for my friend Lacey’s birthday. Barbie Girl, The Macarena, Semi-charmed kinda life…all the good stuff.

MAY: I drove out to San Diego to see my friend Rachel. Her brother taught us how to shoot a bow and arrow for the first time.

JUNE: I took two weeks of PTO and checked PNW off the bucket list. I traveled to Redding, CA -> Eugene, OR -> Portland, OR -> Seattle, WA -> Vancouver BC. It was epic. I connected with old friends, worshipped at Bethel, floated rivers, went to vineyards and wineries, saw the coast, ate clam chowder, visited my 30th country and had so much fun!

JULY: Charles (that charming man from back in Feb.) and I spent 4th of July on a lake in Arizona. We also went to our first concert together…Fitz & the Tantrums.

AUGUST: My cousin Brianna got married so my family flew out to Kentucky and celebrated her big day!

SEPTEMBER: I quit my job at Nordstrom and started nannying for a family that lives in my neighborhood…talk about convenient! Charles and I also traveled to Georgia for a WorldRace Alumni conference and more importantly for him to meet my best friends.

OCTOBER: This was a low month for me emotionally. I almost broke up with Charles because of my own fears. Thankfully he constantly endures my ups and downs. We dressed up for Halloween as a cowboy/cowgirl one day and baseball players another day.

NOVEMBER: Charles and I spent Thanksgiving in Tucson with my family and then we drove north with some friends to spend the day at Woods Canyon Lake for my birthday…even though it wasn’t for another week.

DECEMBER: I turned 30 years old on December 5th and had the most memorable birthday. After dinner at Pho King Kitchen (yep, say it faster), Charles took me to the bell tower at our church that overlooks the valley. I was blindfolded and as soon as we stepped into the tower I heard someone playing the guitar. I immediately recognized the song because it was the first song the Charles sang to me (and I didn’t find it cheesy or lame). I asked him if he was going to make me cry and he said probably”. He proposed at the top of the bell tower and I couldn’t stop crying/smiling/laughing/all the emotions! THEN, he pointed out the window and 50 people started cheering! We ate cake and drank sparkling cider with our closest friends and family to celebrate our engagement. It was absolutely magical.

Now we are heading into 2017 and although I am excited for the many many NEW things I will experience, I feel warm gratitude in my heart for 2016. Sometimes it can be tempting to focus on all of the devastating things that happened this year…our world and our country has suffered greatly. But this year has shown me God’s passion, his closeness, and his care for humankind. The small things we dismiss, he values greatly and finds places of honor for them.

So thank you 2016. I hope to take all of the goodness that I gained and distribute it generously in the coming year.