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.

30.

Today is the last day of my twenties. What?!

As I look back on the last decade I feel honored, proud, and hopeful. On a lovely hike around Woods Canyon Lake, some friends prayed for me and spoke words of encouragement over me.img_8068

It was on that hike that I realized it had been exactly ten years since I first encountered the freedom and power of the Holy Spirit.

TEN YEARS.

In the last decade of following the Spirit, I have seen some glorious things.

  • I remember watching one of my best friends in college receive the Holy Spirit at a prayer tent on campus. She couldn’t stop smiling!
  • I remember God healing one of my classmates. She had torn her ACL and a week later she had no brace and didn’t have to have surgery!
  • I’ve traveled to five continents and a total of thirty countries.
  • I’ve met some of the most courageous, most honorable, and most humble people despite their circumstances.
  • I remember watching people get set free from bitterness and resentment…being filled with overflowing joy and love.
  • I remember crying A LOT over my weakness and brokenness.
  • I remember those deep sighs of relief because of God’s kindness toward me and the ways he healed wounds in my heart I didn’t even know were there.
  • I remember God miraculous providing bath mats and bed skirts and kitchen utensils and large debts.
  • I’ve had the incredible privilege to lead men and women who are changing the world for the sake of love and making disciples of Christ.
  • I remember crying in my car realizing that God is my father and he takes care of me…right before he got me out of a terrible financial situation at my apartment complex.
  • I remember when my iPad was stolen in New York…I prayed and it was miraculously returned to me.
  • I’ve seen God heal ankles, backs, headaches, knees, relationships and hearts.
  • I’ve met people who have been healed of cancer.
  • I’ve seen people set free of demonic torment.
  • I’ve seen whole families discover Jesus and commit their life to him.
  • I have found friends who love deeply and forgive generously.
  • I found a man who patiently and wholly pursues my heart.

I could keep going! My twenties have been a gift that has broken me and shaped me. I am absolutely full of gratitude and appreciation. I’m thankful for my family members who have been my constant cheerleaders and always gracious with my process.

Now as I pass this threshold out of my twenties and into my thirties, my goal is to risk more boldly, to believe more fiercely, and to love with greater passion. I hope to do justice to the glorious life I have been given in Christ and carry his banner high.

Let’s do this thing.

Dear Donald Trump

I cannot imagine the weight of responsibility that you feel as you accept this monumental position. I am sure that there is a sobriety in what the future holds, even for someone like you.

I have to be honest with you; respect has not been an easy choice for me. Your words and your past behaviors have offended me, disgusted me, and caused strong anger to rise up in me. However, I will choose respect not because you are worthy of my respect but because I am a respectable person. You will not dictate the type of person I will choose to be.

Though you carelessly spew words of hate and homogeneity, I will not allow my heart to hate you and I will not allow my mouth to curse you. I will even attempt to remove myself from the judgment seat.

With that being said, I am sorry for the tremendous attack you have received from the public. I am sorry that every single thing you’ve ever done out of arrogance or selfishness has been constantly thrown in your face while any possible good in your heart is criticized and falsified.

I do not believe that you are damned…completely void of any ability to do the next right thing. I do not blame you for the hate and injustice that has long existed and remains in our nation. However, I do believe that you have one of the greatest opportunities in the history of our country, and to not take that opportunity would be to your shame. It is an opportunity to be humble and to lead with wisdom, valuing the humanity of both the supporters and the haters.

I pray that your response is humility and our nation’s response is love, regardless of the other. May we all reflect on and listen to the words of Martin Luther King Jr. and be inspired for tomorrow. The choice has always been ours and it cannot be taken away.

Today, what will you choose?

“Through nonviolent resistance we shall be able to oppose the unjust system and at the same time love the perpetrators of that system. We must work passionately and unrelentingly for full stature as citizens, but may it never be said, my friends, that to gain it we used the inferior methods of falsehood, malice, hate, and violence.”

“A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart” Strength to Love

 

 

Finding Home

This summer I am taking an online class in Theology and Film. It has been interesting to hear reactions from people who are disturbed by the fact that my homework consists of watching movies like Little Miss Sunshine and American Beauty in a seminary class. Maybe they expected us to discuss strictly Christian movies like Fireproof or War Room.

But it has actually been refreshing to have a theological discussion about secular films and to discover the resonance of Christ in the stories about human life. Because the truth is that no matter who is telling the story, every human life will echo the hunger and thirst for the eternal. God has put eternity into the hearts of all humans; all people were created with a longing for God.

I started the class while I was on my summer vacation in the Pacific Northwest. I was going to the theater in Redding, shipping books to Eugene, and watching movies in Washington. The first assignment was to watch a film currently in theaters. It was a rainy afternoon in Redding and the friend I was staying with had to go to a baby shower…so I thought, ‘what a perfect setting for a little date with myself’ and I went to see Finding Dory. Little did I know that everyone else in Redding had the same idea! Nevertheless, I sat by myself in the crowded theater and started snacking on the granola I snuck in my purse.

Finding Dory is the sequel to Finding Nemo and takes the original story deeper into the history and storyline of the forgetful but lovable character Dory. This film creates enough light-hearted, feel-good moments to engage and entertain the audience yet it also communicates a powerful message of belonging and family that our society is desperately hungry for.

Though we laugh at Dory’s forgetful naivety, there is a longing for the childlike hope and joy she possesses. Marlin and Nemo find themselves completely stuck and without any hope until Nemo suggests that they leave behind all the thought-wrenching analysis and ‘do what Dory would do’. There is a powerful discovery as they begin to access the same optimistic outlook that Dory carries through her life.

The most powerful and climactic moment of the film for me is when Dory remembers little by little about her childhood and starts putting the pieces together. As she is connecting the dots and finding her home, the screen pans out to show the persistent and unrelenting hope her parents had that she would find her way. You see her home and lines of seashells leading to the house from every direction. This scene spoke to me powerfully about God’s pursuit and his intention to create a path in every direction so that we can find our way back home.

In the same way as Dory’s parents, God is calling us home, waiting for us to remember and find his path for us to return to a place of belonging and family. And there is no direction that you are coming from that can miss God’s path for you. He has made a way for each and every one of his children. The movie also spoke to me about the diversity of family and that it does not end with our nuclear family but includes the brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles in Christ who walk alongside us through life. Family can be messy, broken, and hurtful at times but at the end of the movie, Dory realizes that Marlin and Nemo and even grumpy old Hank are her family too.

Humans were created for connection and belonging. This truth rings throughout scripture and throughout Hollywood. May you find the family, tribe, community and belonging that your soul craves and demands. God of the universe, Compassionate Lord, Perfect Love has made a place for you in the family; he is full of hope for your restoration and homecoming.

The second path

The other day I was reminded of a decision that I made deep in my spirit and that I am confident I will make over and over again for the rest of my time on earth.

When I look at my life, I see two possible paths I can take:
Path #1 – Safe. Predictable. Secure. Insured. It looks a lot like most middle class American lives.
Path #2 – Risk. Unknown. Adventure. Faith. A path that I fear will disappoint the expectations some people have for my life.

I don’t mean to say that the typical middle class American (Path #1) can’t live a life of adventure, risk and faith.

But I do know that for me – this wouldn’t be the case. I would rely more on my own financial security than on God’s provision. I would depend more on my health insurance than the healing power of God. For me, Path #1 leads to a boring life that wastes the precious time given to me on this earth. I don’t want store up security and knowledge only to gain nothing that will endure beyond this life.

I was reminded that no matter how tempting Path #1 can appear to be and no matter the expectations or plans that others have for my life…I will always choose the second path. I will always come back to those hunger pangs for the deep, dark waters where only the Lord can lead me. I reject the lie that wisdom only looks like a full bank account and a completely mapped out life. I am not promised tomorrow; I refuse to deny the adventure for today out of the fear of lack for tomorrow.

The God I serve is intimately acquainted with my comings and goings. He is keenly aware of my need. A life surrendered to him and entrusted to him is not foolish. It is the only secure place. It is the one true way to hold onto that which will last.

Therefore, my heart will always choose Path #2. I can’t see where it leads and I can’t determine each step of the way. But that is the beauty of this path. It does not lack vision but embraces obscurity for the sake of faith in an unseen God.

Our steps are made firm by the Lord, when he delights in our way;
though we stumble, we shall not fall headlong, for the Lord holds us by the hand.
Psalm 37:23-24

fresh worship

What makes the God I worship different? What is this whisper that beckons my heart and captures my imagination?

Since the beginning of time, people from all nations have searched for the divine. For many, the fullness of this understanding comes in the divinity of self and all of life becomes the seeking of this ultimate reality.

My mind has been consumed with Hindu thought as I have been studying the Bhagavad Gita and different forms of yoga that bring about the release from the cycles of death and rebirth. My professor encouraged us to search these things in groups of two or more, where Christ leads and guides us. She expects us to sense the resonances of Christ in all worship practices and yet also discern how Christian worship is different.

The fresh wind that has come in my understanding and worship of Christ through this process is indescribable. Truths that have been stale for years are taking deep breaths and exhaling cleansing revelation to my soul.

We have relationship with the deity. He made his relationship with us the closest form of identity to him without being him – we are his children; we carry his DNA but we are not the deity. He hears us when we speak; he has compassion on us and feels our pain; he responds to us because he loves us. If we are the divine and there is no separation, there is no relationship and without relationship there is no love. Yet we have understood the very definition of Love because we know where we end and where God begins in relationship. We do not claim to be divine or to be the creator but as created beings we reflect Christ, who is the fullness of the deity, in us.

This God we worship is a God who is devoted and a God who sacrifices. We do not sacrifice to God so that we may earn the right to his blessings or to receive his power. But he has sacrificed himself to us – and given us his inheritance freely. There is no sacrifice we can make that would compel him to bless us. It was first his decision to give us free gifts that we could not earn – even the simple gift of life.

We often hear of a people who sacrifice to God and a people who are devoted to God. But what about a God who sacrifices? What about a God who is the most loyal and devoted companion? Truly it is not our sacrifice that defines our worship but God’s. Our devotion is merely a response to a greater devotion and loyalty that God displays toward us.

Human beings were made for connection, not only to others and not only to the self. But we were created and fashioned to connect to the Supreme Being and Creator of our most delicate intricacies. We were made to be outrageously loved as children born of God. We are not reborn into another attempt to achieve the ultimate reality of the self as divine, but we are reborn into a family with connection, belonging and love.

Though this world is full of suffering and pain, we have seen glimpses of hope. And we know true joy and peace as Christ sets us free, releases us from darkness, and restores all things. He is our ultimate reality and He is our hope for glory.

One Year Later

Yesterday was my ONE YEAR anniversary of living in Phoenix.

movingtophx

In the midst of reading 42 thousand books, writing pages upon pages of school papers, sweating profusely in  115 degree summers, making new friends, crying on my floor, feeling lonely, going to different churches, getting fit at boot camp, training for a half marathon, playing with my niece and nephew, and eating a hot breakfast made by my brother-in-law every morning — I am home.

I wouldn’t trade all my years of travel but it feels good to be home. The seasons of life are mysterious and beautiful.

Now that I have one year of Arizona life under my belt, I wanted to share how it all began…

(it may be 14 minutes long…but it’s entertaining nonetheless)

Thoughts on depression & faith

The other day my sister and I stood in the kitchen and discussed the issue of mental illness and depression, specifically for Christians. It was sparked by my curiosity of how to love and support someone who consistently struggles with depression. Do you ask how they are doing when you see them? Or do you pretend like nothing happened and wait for them to bring it up? I want to be intentional but sensitive at the same time.

That led our discussion to the tension between depression and faith. I loved that she engaged with me in this conversation because I value her opinion greatly.

I used to have a strong zealous position against using medicine for depression because I believed that God could heal without it. The ironic thing is that I would take medicine for a headache even though I believed God could heal without it. Plus, I probably could have benefitted from some pills that would balance out my emotions. My emotions can sky rocket one moment and then sink the next.

Through experiences of my own and those of people close to me, I have seen how God uses medicine for his glory and to bring health to our bodies and our minds. I think we are too quick to pick one or the other, God or medicine. Why can’t it be ‘both, and’ instead of ‘either, or’?

My sister brought some wisdom in saying that sometimes we need help to hear God and medicine can help remove those blocks. I agreed but was also reminded of a famous quote from St. Augustine:

“You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.”

There have been times when God met me in the lowest places. Times when I could not even pull myself onto his lap, and he came to my weakest, most vulnerable state. There have been times when a counselor gave me tools to better hear God’s voice and remove blocks.

God can and does use medicine to heal his children but it is he who breaks through our deafness. It is he who dispels our blindness. The one who created our ears to hear, knows how to cause us to hear.

Depression and mental illness suck. I hate that people have to endure such pain and torment in their mind. If medicine helps your mind, please take it just like you would take any treatment for a physical illness. But at the same time, don’t put all your trust in medicine. It is a tool in the Lord’s hand and he is your deliverer and your peace.