Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Filthy Stables

This summer I will have been at my church for 18 years. In these days of the consumer mentality, being anywhere for 18 years is rare. I heard a statistic once that the average "parishioner" stays at any given church for about 18 months and then they move on.

Over the course of my 18 years in one place I have often found it a difficult "row to hoe" and have on many, many.... many occasions considered packing up and moving along myself.

The thing about churches is they are seriously dysfunctional, all churches, not just mine, but mine is dysfunctional too. Over the 18 years I have been offended. I have been wounded. I have felt taken advantage of, and I have felt unappreciated. I have felt betrayed, and judged and even picked on on occasion. I have felt invisible, I have felt unloved, I have felt ostracized and I have felt manipulated. Yep, over the course of 18 years, I have felt every one of those feelings, and I have felt them more than once. And I have felt on the receiving end of it from leaders to laymen.

So why would I stay, right? I'm sure that's a question you're at least entertaining. Maybe some of you are even flat out asking, "why didn't you just bail?" There have been times I almost did, times I came really close.

One particular time when my "mental" bags were "packed" in the proverbial sense and I was heading for the door on a permanent basis the Lord brought me across a scripture from the Book of Proverbs that stopped me in my tracks. The 4th verse of chapter 14 says, "Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox. Say what? The way I actually remember the verse in my mind is "A clean stable is nice, but the oxen bring the increase." That doesn't make it any clearer to you? I'm sorry, let me elaborate on what it spoke to my heart in that moment. What it said to me was, a church would be a perfect place if there were no people in it, but what on earth would it ever accomplish?

I know, I know, I can hear you now, "But it shouldn't be like that..." And I have to ask you, what makes you say that? Is it the long biblical history of God using perfect people to accomplish His purposes? Because if that's what you're thinking, I am just going to have to respectfully disagree.

And if I am honest, I will have to admit if I look behind myself over the last 18 years, I am sure to find a wake of wounded, offended people too. People I have hurt, let down, disappointed and grieved. I don't recall ever having ever tried to do it purposely, with malice, but I am sure I have.

I'm not the only one either, I have seen lots of people get hurt in my church, by each other, by "the church," and I have seen a lot of people pack their bags and walk all the way through the doors never to return. Sadly, many of them cut their ties not only to this little "body" of believers but they have allowed their wounds to come between them and God. They didn't just walk away from the building, or from the people who hurt them, but they decided to blame God and walk away from Him too. And they have suffered the consequences, carrying a bitter heart that burns with an unresolved anger that slowly consumes them from inside. Suddenly their anger at "Christians" turns into an unbelief in a loving God.

Not everyone I've seen do it has walked that far away, some have stopped short at actually blaming God, but they've still let a root of bitterness settle in, and they leave with bridges burning behind them, breaking friendships and creating stress factors in relationships that damage things seemingly beyond repair. They walk away with their pride but rather than helping them "stand tall" it weighs them into a weakened state that they live with for a lot of years. They might tell you everything is "OK" but you'll never catch them at a baby showers or graduation parties where they're likely to run into those people they "used to know." Chance meetings in restaurants and Target lead them to hiding behind a clothes rack just to avoid crossing paths stretching out from history. So they've left their dysfunctional church only to find they took the dysfunction right along with them.

So what I came to realize was, that's just the way it is. Churches are like filthy stables, people are there and (forgive me) they bring their crap with them, and it can get pretty messy, you have to watch where you step. But you have to realize, sometimes you're the pig in the stable too, and even with the best intentions, sometimes you screw things up, and someone else find themselves stepping in your mess.

So I started thinking about this, and it occurred to me, God has always been accomplishing His purpose through imperfect people.

I think of Abraham, the same guy who told his wife to lie and tell people she was his sister so no one would try to harm him, that same fearful guy was the man of bravery and faith who was willing to be obedient to the point of sacrificing his son at God's command.

I think of David, he was the adulterer and murderer too, the same man who stood on the rooftop and called for Bathsheba was the same man of honor who held Saul's mortality in his grasp and showed him mercy and respect as God's anointed.

The same hot headed and overzealous Peter who denied Christ three times, is the apostle on whom He chose to "build His church." God uses imperfect people, and they gather and meet together and make for imperfect, albeit effective churches.

I think I know why, or at least I have a thought of the possible reason. If it wasn't that way, and people didn't screw up royally (I was going to say, "make mistakes" but let's just be real here) then maybe no one would see the powerful work Christ is doing in their hearts and lives, instead they'd just be nice people doing nice things all on their own, and where's the fun in that?

Seriously though, I know when I look back and acknowledge hurts I've caused in my life, I know it was all me, I can't blame God for my actions. I made choices, I was responsible for my actions and since I'm not a member of the Church of Stepford Wives, no matter how much it grieved God's heart, or how hard He might try to bring conviction to my attitudes and actions, in the end, I would make my own choice and someone else would suffer the consequence. And the fact of the matter is, I'll undoubtedly do it again, no matter how hard I try not to. I'm a cow in the stable and I will leave my "crap" behind.

So I guess the moral of this story (or diatribe?) is that we need to remember why we're in church. It's not about us. We're there to be used, to be effective, even in our imperfections. We're there to bring glory to the God who gives us the power to touch lives for Him, Who enables us to overcome our shortcomings and failures to make an eternal impact on the lives He's placed in our path, in our church. Is it ironic that Jesus made his original debut in a filthy stable?

So next time you find yourself making it all about you,and feeling offended or hurt by someone you think should "be better than that," acknowledge the fact that we all leave a wake of woundedness behind us, but God is a God who redeems, rebuilds and restores, if only we'll stick around long enough to let Him.

Monday, April 12, 2010

First Things First

It's been an interesting few days since I felt like I reached a breakthrough with the Lord. He finally spoke clearly to my heart about the need to put my focus on effort on pursuing Him first in all things, and call me thick-headed, because I realize this seems like an obvious principle, but I finally reached the point of surrender.

A few days before I hit this point, I had an exchange with a friend on Facebook. Like my blog I am pretty transparent on FB and I confessed to feeling very much like I was lost and in a desert, to which my friend responded with an encouragement of sorts. What she said was, "Hang on Diana, you've been here before and the Lord always comes through and brings you to a better place with Him." Well, the current "state of the union" would indicate she was correct, but what has been bothering me a little is the fact that I keep wandering into these desert places. I'm wondering if that says something concerning about me and my spiritual condition. The scripture that keeps coming to my mind is this: Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure. Philippians 2:12-13. In a way this has given me a little bit of hope. Paul is speaking to the obedient here, he even describes them as faithful, and yet, they have to keep working out their salvation. I hope that's the battle, me working through my salvation.

I have tried to obey what I have heard the Lord speak. I laid aside some things, and more importantly, I put Him back on the throne of others. As I have done this, one thing at a time, it's like I have been pulling spiritual cotton out of my ears. The more I have obeyed, the more I have tried to tune my ear to hear His voice, the more He seems to speak.

With my physical efforts to lose weight and get healthier, the changes I have made have been to not allow my workouts interfere with spending time with Him in the morning to read and pray. It had gotten to the point that I was laying aside that time in order for the better or longer work out. Simple, but I have chosen to reverse that, and over the last few days I even missed a few workouts because of it. As for my "dieting" rather than laying myself heavy with lots of restrictions and rules in my eating, I am just trying to be dependent on Him in that area. I am only eating out of true physical hunger, not being gluttonous but being content with just enough, and instead of using food like a drug to meet spiritual and emotional needs, I'm turning to Him to fill those voids. Just in the few days I have tried to make myself more dependent on Him I have dropped 5 lbs of weight. After being stuck for such a long time I have made a huge drop in those few days just by putting Him first and trusting Him.

As the cotton has been pulled from my ears, some scales seem to be dropping from my eyes as well. Things that have been awry and I have tried to ignore have been more plain before me. We have had a lot of unrest in our home, not between Neal and I, but among our children. Things have been very contentious, lots of fighting and yelling, even physical altercations at times. Even my usually sweet natured Ethan has been flippant and disrespectful. It's been really grating on Neal and I to the point that we have been trying to avoid too much "whole family" time together, rather dividing them to conquer.

The Lord these past couple of days reminded me of a scripture He put but before not too long ago, from 1 Timothy 4, it says, "Till I come, give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine. 14 Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you by prophecy with the laying on of the hands of the eldership. 15 Meditate on these things; give yourself entirely to them, that your progress may be evident to all. 16 Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you. I knew at the time when I read it He was referring to my children. As gifted as I am as a teacher and an exhorter (that's not pride, I know it is a GIFT) I had been using it only on the outside of my most precious circle. I knew the Lord was calling me to use these gifts to train and build up my own kids. They are my greatest "hearers" and I had been neglecting that very important privilege.

Saturday night we took the kids to an Angel game and by the time we got home Neal and I were about ready to run away. Ethan got sent to bed almost immediately after we got home because of disrespect. Though not in trouble we shuffled Victoria off towards bed as well just have some peace. Neal started a movie with Jacob and his friend/ our honorary son in the living room. A few minutes later I felt impressed to go and spend a little time with my daughter. We laid together and talked, read her Bible and the Lord began to give me insight into her struggles and gave me tools to began to work with her on changes that need to be made. Eventually I brought her back into the living room and Neal and the older boys joined me as we prayed over her and asked God to empower her with His Spirit to make better choices and to rely on His strength to do it and not her own. (I plan to blog in more specifics about the night on our family blog, feel free to check back for more on the story.)

The next morning I was alone with the little kids as Neal, Jake and Trevor were all serving in church that morning. I knew I needed to talk to Ethan a little about what had gone on the night before. I ended up having a good conversation with him as well, not as deep or intense, but I was laying ground work for more conversation ahead. It was different and what I felt in that moment was the Lord showing me how to train each of them each in their own bent. Again, a basic principle and seemingly obvious, but something I had neglected.

Neal and I ended up having a chance to go to dinner and talk about the need to parent with more unity, and be proactive, not reactive, training, not just dealing with what comes our way. And we need to work harder to bringing it all back to the Truth of God's Word, and giving them knowledge, helping them turn it into wisdom as they apply it. It felt good to get on the same page, we've always been a team, but now we working from the same game plan.

I've started journaling, writing is from the Lord for me, it's a strong area of communication, it's why I love to blog, but blogging isn't enough. When I blog as committed as I am to being real and honest, there is still the awareness of the reader, and a desire to communicate powerfully and effectively, but when I journal, it is just between the Lord and I. It is a tool to help me focus completely on Him, and I can muddle through, I can whine, I can complain and I can just be real wherever I am at without fear of judgment. Last week I had been doing it more than once a day. Then when the weekend came with a prayer meeting, a soccer game, 2 Angel games and the like by last night I realized I hadn't stopped for total focus and well past when I should have gone to bed I had to blog. I forewent sleep in lieu of the opportunity to connect to the Father. I know it was more Him drawing me than me being drawn.

Today, with spring break now over, it was time to start getting up early for my workouts again. Last week I had later hours to accommodate both the work out and the quiet time. I knew today would be tough. So at the end of my prayer journaling I asked God to help me be up and able to manage going back to the early hours. I was amazed this morning when I found myself wide awake even earlier than normal. I woke up rested and refreshed despite the short sleep and was able to get in a solid work out, a shower and a great quiet and devotional time, and still get the kids off to school on time (even with my wayward husband home and getting ready for golf.) As I was finishing up getting ready I marveling at how well the morning was going when I remembered the scripture, Matthew 6:33 which says, "But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you." I knew the Lord brought it to my mind to remind me of His wonderful "kingdom math." He promised if I would do my part, He would do His.

The bottom line is, it's about putting "first things first" which means He has to be first in all things. He wants to be a part of everything I do, and He wants to empower me to do the things I need to do. I talked to my daughter about that power from the Holy Spirit, and we likened to a balloon inside each believer, every believer has one, but many live a deflated life, with it deflated inside. I know I have been guilty of poking "holes" in my balloons with out of whack priorities, but when I put the Lord in His proper place (first) in every aspect of my life, it's like creating the perfect seal on a balloon that is continually inflated and making a visible impact. I want to live a fully inflated life.

By no means do I think I have this "covered." I don't think this an accomplished task in my life, but I do feeling like I am catching on, and working out my salvation. God has a purpose and plan for me, and I hinder it when I don't let Him be Lord of all. So I am doing my best to walk in obedience. I'm trying to do it in the care of my spirit, in the care of my soul, in the care of my children, and in the care of my gifts, including my writing. I am believing for God's good work and that I can grow through it.

It's exciting, and I have been praying for balance, and the first step towards that is definitely putting first things first.

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