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Holidays in Ministry

I remember coming home from Palm Sunday service in April, with a full and exhausted heart. I shuffled through the front door of my college house, hands full of overflowing tote bags, into what was an equally full kitchen. I remember being greeted with a dozen high-pitched welcomes and rapid-fire questions that I’d grown to expect (and now miss): How was church? Were you teaching? How’d it go?

The conversation quickly shifted back to the previous topic: the sweetness that everyone had experienced at their Palm Sunday services. Friends talked about how they’d cried when the children skipped down the aisles, waving palm branches. They commented on how moving the presentation of the story had been, how tangible the Spirit was during worship, and how relevant the sermons had been. Partaking in communion during holidays usually carries a different weight.

I just listened, laughing to myself. That hadn’t quite been my experience…

I don’t know what our palm processional looked like because I was in the back, consoling a crying toddler and convincing my middle schoolers that waving palms was still cool. I found myself in the middle of a palm branch duel between brothers, being smacked by the branches as I threatened to take them away. I ran, in my heels, to find extra palms (or, let’s be real, probably a stick from the parking lot) because, inevitably, someone didn’t get one.

For everything that’s moving, beautiful, and meaningful in a church service, there’s someone behind it who’s making it happen.

I’m specifically talking about ministry-related events here, but the principle extends further: at stores, restaurants, events – whatever it is that we’re experiencing, there’s someone on the other end who is doing all they can to make it happen.

That isn’t to say they don’t love their job. It isn’t to say that people are bitter about what they’re missing or that they are dying to be appreciated (if they are, maybe it’s time to give them a break). This isn’t a complaint about spending my Palm Sunday morning playing games with pre-teens; believe me when I say I loved every bit of it. My Christmas Eve will be spent as the liaison between the middle schoolers who we’re letting plan the program and the kids they’ll be directing in it. But I’m pretty sure I’m living the dream here. I’m choosing to have youth group on my birthday because I love what I do. 

I love my students more than I ever thought possible. I love watching them fall in love with Jesus. I love watching them play stupid games, care about re-decorating their youth room, or hanging out with each other after service. How can this not be the best job in the world?

It’s not a complaint.

It’s just a reminder not to forget.

Don’t forget the people who are working behind the scenes. Don’t forget that the things you enjoy, the things that are causing you to meet Jesus – they don’t just happen.

For every beautiful children’s program, there’s a tired, overworked (and probably really happy) children’s director. For every craft or candle that gets passed out, for every giving tree tag that you pull off, there’s someone behind the cutting, glueing, and assembling. For every moving sermon and powerful worship set, there’s a pastor, worship pastor, and any number of people running the AV system. For every service that is made reverent and special by the removal of your kids, there’s someone whose missing service to watch and teach them. They’re probably missing the holiday, or at the very least, the church service, with their family.

It’s lesson planning, lots of Dollar Tree runs, papers all over the bedroom floor, too many questions and decisions, weekend work days, justification for buying reusable tote bags every time you stop at the grocery, and too many hugs, laughs, and sweet moments to count.

It’s a whole lot of the faithfulness of the Lord. And a whole lot more of His grace.

If you’re in ministry, I hope that you love what you do. I hope that it feels like the very gift that it is.

We wouldn’t trade it for the world.

And, we love hearing that you find what we’re doing meaningful and moving. Just don’t forget that we didn’t experience it like you did. Be gracious in the way you speak and be cognizant of the subconscious reality of making those in the background feel like they’re missing out. We may not talk about the sermon, the program, the worship, or the processional, but it’s encouraging to hear that you met the Lord in it.

We’d also love to talk about our students, the craziness of the morning, or that we met Jesus too, if you’d like to listen. Sometimes, all we need is someone to get as excited about memory verses, new technology, or an injury-free event as we are.

With another busy, holiday season, where things in ministry tend to pick up instead of slow down, remember to be kind. Encouragement, gratitude, and just simple noticing goes further than you might think.

There’s a lot that goes into the 5 minute video that you’ll see on Sunday morning. Someone is making a last minute sprint into the grocery to pick up items for communion. The handouts that you’re getting, the graphic on the screen, and the quietness of a service sans children – yep, someone is behind all of that.

Managing the program. Putting together the videos. Troubleshooting the unforeseen challenges. Teaching students about what it means to love Jesus. Sometimes it feels rewarding, sometimes it feels thankless. Sometimes we come through that door on cloud nine, amazed at the works of the Lord, and sometimes we come ready for sweatpants and a nap, unsure if we’re making a difference.

Holidays, when your life is ministry, can look quite different. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Don’t be Like Usain Bolt, Be like Jesus.

The realities of how our world, and more specifically our American culture, is structured are such that the demands are never ending. What concerns me in this? The church has structured herself in the same sort of way.

It’s not uncommon to have a pastor who is planting a church, while sitting on the city council board, leading local outreaches, is working on his PhD, and raising half-a-dozen kids. It is not just one missionary who feels the pressures of both her local context and her supporters, trying to meet all the needs around her by working from sunup to sundown, babysitting kids, leading worship, discipling women, running English camps, working at homeless shelters, and doing street evangelism, only to come home and answer emails after dark. It is not just one person, one family who has left ministry, the mission field, or whatever it is they were doing because they found themselves tired, overwhelmed, burned out, and disillusioned.

The needs were great and at some point, the exhaustion becomes greater. I’m worried that the people of God are going to run themselves into the ground if we keep up this Usain-Bolt-type-pace.

We may not be sensitive to the biological and physiological issues caused by overworking (which in and of itself is concerning), but I find myself confused that we don’t seem overly concerned with Jesus’ model for it either. If we’re supposed to be “imitators of God” (John 13:13-16, 1 Corinthians 11:1, Ephesians 5:1-2, 1 Peter 2:20-22, 1 John 2:6), shouldn’t the primary basis for our action, response, and engagement in ministry be that of our Lord?

Even the Gospel of Matthew, which seems focused on thematically emphasizing the works and preaching of Christ (Matthew 9:35-38), still makes space to note the significance of solitude with the Father. In one chapter alone (14), Matthew mentions twice that Christ went to be alone and even sent people away to go “up into the hills by himself to pray” (14:22). Matthew is also the only Gospel who records Jesus saying the following about life in Him:

“Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear and the burden I give you is light” (11:28-30).

Even the writer who seems predominantly focused on the scope of what Christ is doing finds it necessary to record that He offers rest.

For all of that, Matthew has nothing on Mark and Luke when it comes to recording Jesus’ pace and emphasis on being alone with the Father. Mark’s description about the life and ministry of Jesus includes different details than Matthew, often recording the ways Christ not only pursues rest Himself but often calls out His disciples for neglecting self-care and having an improper orientation. We don’t get a chapter into Mark and we already see the city stirring for the presence of Jesus, the disciples eager to send Him out before the people. Christ’s first response is one of movement away: “We must go on to other towns as well, and I will preach to them too. That is why I came” (1:38).

Another example of this sort of pulling away, even from places of considerable stirring, is in Mark 6. The disciples come back to Jesus, excited about the ministry that they’ve just gone out and done (6:7-12). Yet, Jesus’ response is not one of enthusiasm, planning, or eagerness to send them back out. There seems to be little focus on the needs of the villages. Jesus calls out the apostle’s orientation and need for rest. Honestly, he seems more concerned with the fact that they haven’t eaten:

“’Let’s go off by ourselves to a quiet place and rest awhile.’ He said this because there were so many people coming and going that Jesus and his apostles didn’t even have time to eat” (6:31).

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Are we comfortable with the idea that there are times in Scripture where Jesus moves away from places where we perceive potential fruitful ministry? That there are places where people need Him, need the Holy Spirit, and need healing, and we see Him walking away? This isn’t to say that Jesus ever moves or acts lightly; when He walks away from a city or a crowd, He’s not being neglectful, unloving, or unfaithful. Even in His humanity, He is still God. He knows the will of the Father because He’s making space to hear the Father. We see Christ underscore that in places like John 5:17-23 and John 8:28-29.

A missionary mentor in Asia wrote the following once: “The need is not the call. The call is the call.” A mom to some incredible, adopted children, she has constantly been bombarded with questions of why she closed the doors on taking in more children. After all, if anyone could do it, she could. The Lord could do it. And gosh, look at the need. But that has been exactly her point: We aren’t called to look at the need, we are called to look at Jesus. There’s always need, and until we reach eternity, there is always going to be need.

Our view of maximized efficiency and meeting the most needs aren’t the same as the Lord’s. We don’t see things like He does (Isaiah 55:8-9). The needs of the world orient us towards our calling and the heart of Christ, but if we keep our focus on them then it is no wonder why people don’t last more than two years when serving in ministry. Jesus was acutely aware of every need and we see Him stopping to meet needs when the Spirit, the same Spirit that lives inside of us, compels. He’s not afraid of interruptions. But it is always rooted in rhythms of rest and a nearness to the Father. He’s also not afraid to say “no” and pull away.

If Jesus, as a human, recognized his own needs and limits, where did we get the idea that we’re somehow being holy by ignoring ours?

An orientation towards calling, knowing what God is asking you specifically to do and operating from a place of intimacy with Him, makes it easier to say “no” to everything else, no matter how good or needed it seems. I’m not saying that’s easy or that I’ve figured it all out, but the more I read about the ministry of Christ, the more central it seems to become. Obedience and faithfulness may seem counterintuitive to modern principles of efficiency, but we know that God’s order is very different than ours (1 Corinthians 1:26-29). Knowing that comes from a deep and intimate knowledge of the Father and His voice.

I’m not saying that the needs aren’t important. I’m not saying that Christians should be content with laziness or apathy, or that it’s okay if our hearts don’t break at the places of brokenness in our world. Christians are not allowed to throw their hands up, shrug their shoulders, and live blind to the screams of a dying world. Our hearts should burn, leap, and weep for the world. If anyone modeled that, it’s Jesus. He felt and feels more deeply for the needs of the world and the “lostness” of the people than I ever will. His heart moves with compassion and He often welcomes the interruptions of those who call upon Him (i.e. Matthew 10:36, Matthew 14:14, Matthew 19:2, Mark 3:20, Mark 7:24-25, Luke 8:27,).

Yet, and this is what I’m concerned the church has lost, even in those interruptions, His focus is solely and unashamedly on the Father and what He is being instructed to do. There are an equal number of times where He dismisses the crowd or leaves what seems to be places of potentially fruitful ministry (i.e. Matthew 10:30, Mark 1:36, Mark 3:12, Mark 5:36, Mark 7:17, Mark 8:33, Luke 5:42).

We should pray with a fervency for all the things that are wrong in the world! We should learn to lament places of hurt and pain! We should be giving ourselves passionately and wholeheartedly to the things that God has called us to! But all of that must happen from a rootedness in the Holy Spirit, a dependence on Christ, and an intimacy with the Father. We only cultivate those things by having time and space for them. Give yourself wholeheartedly to what God has called you to do. I’m not you, but based on what I see in the life of Jesus, I find it hard to believe that He’s calling you to a-hundred-and-one-thousand things in this season, especially if it’s at the expense of your primary calling (and the place every other calling flows out of) to love and worship Him.

Christ knew the will of the Father because half of His time was spent listening for it. I see Him operating from a place of refreshment and rhythms of rest, by saying “yes” and “no” based on obedience and faithfulness, rather than the perceived needs around Him. The question for you and I then, is are we?

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Reflections on Car Church

“Time for car church!” The four boys in the front seats pulled out their Bibles, while the three of us girls, crammed in the backseat of a friend’s SUV, wiggled to grab our backpacks. We were a solid 10 hours into a 22 hour road trip for Spring Break. And it was time for car church.

Being in a car full of Wheaton students, the Bible major of the group read a passage for us in Greek. Our text for the morning was Matthew 14:22-33. A familiar passage. Yet as a car full of personalities, academic disciplines, and individual relationships with the Lord began talking through these verses, the Holy Spirit began to move in our hearts and reveal new truths about this story.

Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.

Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.

But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.

“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.” “Come,” he said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, why did you doubt?And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

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at some gas station in Nebraska

As we began discussing, the first thing that came up about the passage was the context. This was Jesus’ third attempt at being alone in the chapter. The crowds are being a little more than demanding, to say the least. Yet Christ, in His perfect wisdom, cares for them without sacrificing His intimacy with the Father.

A little twinge of guilt was replaced by a wave of grace as I realized it had been days since I was alone with the Father. How often do I fight for time alone with my heavenly Daddy? Do I see my time with the discernment of Jesus, knowing when to love the people around me and knowing my limits when I need solitude and rest? Am I able to love people out of a place of fulfillment and refreshment from my communion with the Trinity?

•      •      •

As car church continued and we went on in the passage, we reached a Greek phrase that struck us all:

Ego eimai. 

Ego eimai is Greek for “it is I.” It is the same word used in the Septuagint when God names Himself as I AM to Moses. Jesus isn’t just reminding them that He’s still there, He’s reminding them who He is. He is is the Great I AM. The omnipotent, omniscient, Creator of the universe, sustainer of the world, Trinitarian God. The same I AM that parted the Red Sea was walking on the stormy waves of the lake. This the God who loves us. This is the God who knows, redeems, and upholds us. This the God who reaches out His hand and tells us to walk towards Him, in faith and in trust. The Great I Am of the universe, who silences waves and governs scientific principles, also calls us by name and tenderly carries our hearts.

As live in places of fear, looking at the circumstances and unknowns of my life, I hear Him graciously calling out to my heart: ego eimai. It is I. I Am.

•      •      •

With the clear presence of the Holy Spirit and excited to read on, we reached the phrase where Jesus chides Peter for his faith and asks why he doubted. However, the question Jesus asks, in the Greek, is a little different than we think of it. The question Jesus asks Peter, literally translated, isn’t merely “why do you doubt?,” but “in what are you doubting?”

Again washed in the weight of conviction, I realized this is the question that Jesus asks me as my heart wanders away from trusting Him. When my eyes see the waves beneath my feet and the wind beating at my back a little too clearly, He addresses my heart: Maddie, in what are you doubting? Am I doubting his goodness? His trustworthiness? His timing? His love for me?

•      •      •

How many times have I read this story? How many messages have I heard preached from this text? And yet, that afternoon in the backseat of a car, speeding through the cow populated fields of Nebraska, I met my God in a new way.

I pray it is the same for you, wherever you are, this Tuesday afternoon.

The Result of a Pensive Mind. . .on the Church

This summer has provided some much needed reflection and perspective, especially on things I’ve never really considered or questioned. Recently, that’s included the idea of church.

I’ve gone to church my whole life. I was never allowed to open my Easter basket before the sunrise service, and any money I made my senior year of highschool was basically spent on gas, driving to and from the church or the local Starbucks with church people. If there was ever a model church girl, I am pretty much it. I’ve been a part of churches that run the denominational spectrum. I’ve volunteered in every childcare room for every church we’ve ever been a part of. I’ve run lights and sound and slides and small groups. I went to every youth event, even ones where it was just me, my sister, and a leader. I’ve been on mission trips and service days, serving food, cleaning homes, painting walls, or playing with kids. Dinners, sleepovers, discipleship dates, and small groups. . .and the kicker is I don’t resent a single bit of it. None of my church attendance was forced. My parents never coerced me into service and I never begrudgingly followed friends to an event. I was happy to do it; all of it. I have always been a happy church girl. And I keep doing it. I’d do it all over. None of my questions ever convince me to stop, that this “church” is anything but worthy of my time and energy.

One hundred religious persons knit into a unity by careful organization do not constitute a church any more than eleven dead men make a football team. The first requisite is life, always.“ A. W. Tozer

So it’s not from a lack of love that I’ve been questioning what the church is and does; it’s actually from a place of deep care and affection. I truly love “the church,” because I love Jesus and His body with 100% of my being. I feel like there’s a lot of people talking about “the church” as the body of Christ recently, rather than the building everyone migrates to on Sunday mornings, Saturday nights, and Wednesday evenings. I’m so grateful that truth has resurfaced; we don’t go to church, we are the church.

But I wonder, do we actually get that? Does what we do really reflect that truth?

In the David Platt sermon I was listening too while driving to my grandparents house, he said something along the lines of: “We shouldn’t be inviting people to church. Stop asking people to come to church, because you are the church. The church should be going out to the world.” When I read through Acts and 1 Corinthians, I see the radical, communal, selfless, everyday life nature of the body of Christ. And when I look back at the programs and drama and punch-my-Sunday-morning-ticket or I-come-just-to-receive mentality, I wonder how we expect them to align?

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To be painfully honest, I’m struggling with it, this idea of church. And nothing is exempt from my struggle. I’m struggling in the services with the loud, emotional music and dynamic teaching. I know the people and their hearts and I don’t doubt the genuine nature of the experience, but I’m struggling with the idea that people are searching for an individualistic, emotional, satisfying experience, rather than self-denying service and relationships and the powerful (and yes, emotional) Holy Spirit that’s in everyday life. I’m also struggling with the quiet, reserved traditions and routines of church. Was a sparkling chalice and soft wafers, held by a stranger, really what Jesus had in mind when He said “eat my body, drink my blood, and do this in remembrance of me?” I love the diversity of the body and worship. I love how modern technology enables things like podcasts and Christian music and conferences. I don’t doubt the good in them because I’ve been a participant and recipient of that my whole life. I just have to wonder. . .is that really what Jesus wanted to be the head of in Colossians 1:18?

“I lack the fervency, vitality, life, in prayer which I long for. I know that many consider it fanaticism when they hear anything which does not conform to the conventional, sleep-inducing eulogies so often rising from Laodicean lips; but I know too that these same people can acquiescently tolerate sin in their lives and in the church without so much as tilting one hair of their eyebrows.” Jim Eliot

Don’t misunderstand: this isn’t a rant about the church. The last thing I want to do is discourage the good work the church is doing, especially the wonderful specific churches I’ve visited and been blessed to be a part of. I love the church because Jesus loves the church, which, as everyone is saying, is really just the body of believers. And I get it – this is the way things have been done for centuries. I can’t even write this post without using “church talk.” The physical structure of church is necessitated by the numbers and the brokenness and the need for organized systems. This isn’t 1st century Jerusalem; we don’t have to meet in communal, underground house churches anymore. So how do we “devote ourselves to the apostles teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and prayer” (Acts 2:42)? How do we “have all things in common and give to anyone who has need” (Acts 2:44)? How are we supposed to “meet together everyday. . .breaking bread in our homes and eating together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God” (Acts 2:45)? I don’t have all the answers, I don’t even have some of the answers.

I have to wonder if I’m wrong for wanting more simple Sunday’s, filled with worship and people and life. I can’t help but wonder if we’ve got it backwards. One of my favorite quotes is this one by CT Studd:

“Some wish to live within the sound of a chapel bell; I wish to run a rescue mission within a yard of hell.” CT Studd

It’s one of my all-time favorites because it’s one of the most stirring and convicting statements I’ve ever read. I want nothing more than to proclaim it boldly with my whole heart. It stirs me because I know it should be the burning desire of my heart, if my heart truly believes the truth of Scripture and the goodness of the Gospel. It convicts me because it causes me to examine how I truly live. Am I more comfortable being in church than I am actually being the church? Do I know what it means to be with and love “church” people, my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ . . . so I wonder, why does it usually center around the busy, stressed, cranky, rushed, forced, awkward, limited encounters I seem to have inside the physical church walls?

The perfect church service,would be one we were almost unaware of. Our attention would have been on God. C.S. Lewis

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I don’t know how a New Testament church is supposed to look in 21st century America. Greater than me have written much more in depth and theologically accurate books on that. I don’t know how a service like C.S. Lewis is talking about could work inside a church building. I’m not advocating for anything specific because I’m still fuzzy on the specifics of what I’m thinking and feeling. I just know that I feel like something’s off. That tears have come to my eyes in a brightly colored stained glass, organ echoing church and a dimly lit, drum pounding church. Standing next to people I don’t know, or people I do know with needs and wounds. People who find something inside these buildings but struggle in their daily life. Where are their hearts? Where is the community, the for-better-or-worse-you’re-stuck-with-us family? Where is the Father, and Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit?

I just don’t want us to miss the real Jesus. I don’t want us to miss each other. I don’t want to get to heaven and see how we just didn’t get what it meant to really be the church. And I may not know at 19 what it means to “get it;” I don’t know if I’ll ever fully “get it,” but I know that I can’t stop questioning just because I’m afraid of how the questions may shake the cultural notions I have of what “going to” and “being” the church means.

Just thoughts, just questions. When you let a pensive, happy church girl word vomit on her blog. . .

Baptism in Black and White

I’ve taken pictures during baptisms at our church several times now. They are always incredibly powerful, including loving prayers of family and friends, heartfelt acceptance of the creed, unashamed proclamation of the Lord’s sovereignty, and visible display of entering into new life with Christ. The lighting in our church is far from the greatest for… Read more. . .