When People Leave

On a regular basis people come to our church, and on a regular basis people leave our church. For all sorts of reasons, they leave. This is the painful part of being a pastor. I am so very grateful that more people are coming than going these days, but every person who leaves is a loss not just to the church in an abstract way but a loss to me personally, and to our staff. As a pastor I hold people in my heart in a deep way, and I carry their stories with me. It is not a matter of “if” people will leave our church; it is rather a matter of “when.” After all, weather by God’s calling elsewhere, or entropy, or death – we are all on a journey. Each goodbye is painful, sometimes heart-wrenching. I think that just as it is in friendship, we will have our “communities of faith” for a reason, a season, or a lifetime. Some friendships are for a reason, others a season, and some for a lifetime. Our churches are like that too. To be in a church for a lifetime is a rare and beautiful gift, and if you are given this gift, cherish it. Evelena is 94 years old and has been walking through the doors of our church building since she was 14. That is a rare and precious gift. She is a rare and precious gift whom we cherish.

When we decided to adopt a child from China, we imagined a child who was all alone, perhaps in a crib, with little attention or love. After we were “matched” with Lyla, we came to discover quite a different story! Lyla was in a home with the most fabulous and loving foster family. Hulu, her foster mom, immediately began video chatting with me daily so that Lyla could get to know her new mom even months before we met. We would send videos back and forth each day and I would sing to Lyla and read her stories and Hulu would play those videos for Lyla when we were still millions of miles apart. So when we finally met Lyla face-to-face, she already had been prepared in countless ways to be family.

The journey of a foster family is one of loving deeply and fully, and then letting go. Letting go is the final act of love. It is a picture of sacrificial love that is vulnerable, beautiful, and impossible to fully honor.

Hulu and her family gave Lyla (and us) a gift – the gift of loving Lyla and then letting her go. They will always love Lyla in their hearts, but they held her loosely in their hands, knowing one day she would no longer be in their home, though she will always be in their hearts. This is the excruciating work of love.

So here is how I am coming to cope with the dynamic of loving & loosing that is inherent to ministry. Sometimes as a church we are an adoptive family, and other times we are a foster family. We don’t always know which one we will get to be when someone walks through our doors. But, either way our job is the same: love people. Love people like family. Love people deeply, fully, and without fear. If the possibility of someone leaving tomorrow keeps me from loving them fully today, then fear wins. And scripture says, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear…” 1 Jo. 4:18

Maybe someone will leave because their time with us was only for a reason or a season. I want to be Hulu in these moments of departure. Like Hulu I will cry, I will grieve, I may even wish it were different. And at the exact same time I will remember: this is what we are made to do. We are made to love, and sometimes loving means letting go. And so the door of my heart remains open towards the person who leaves so that they can go where God leads them with my love and blessing. And if they ever need this family again – we are here. We are here. We are always here. We will love you when you come, and we will love you as you go. We will love you when you fall away and flake out, and if you choose to return, we will love you then as well. After all, our job is to love one another as we have been loved by God.

Our weekly benediction says, “May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you, wherever He may send you. May He guide you through the wilderness, protect you through the storm, may He bring you home rejoicing at the wonders He has shown you, may He bring you home rejoicing – once again into our doors.”

Hulu and I still regularly exchange photos, and she continues to send Lyla the most amazing gifts. As Lyla’s mom, I am forever grateful that Lyla has so many people all around the world who love her so deeply. So for those of you who have left our flock, and for those of you who may, please know that you will always have a special place in my heart. I’m honored to be one of the pastors in this world who has played a small part in your journey.

Someday, Lyla and I will go visit Hulu again in China….”once again into her doors.”

Susie

Emotional Agility

In the Psalms we read words that do not sound very “Christian.” We read things like, “Bless the one who grabs your babies and smashes them against a rock.” (Psalm 137)
Perhaps the reason they don’t sound very Christian is because the word “Christian” has lost its meaning. For many people in the world today, the word “Christian” means that you generally believe in a higher power and try to be a “nice” person.
And it is precisely this association with being a “nice” person that gets us sideways in acknowledging and dealing with the full gamut of our emotions before the Lord. When we think that being a “good Christian” is the same thing as being a “nice person”, we get ourselves in trouble.
There are some people who have wronged you and others who just rub you wrong, like sandpaper on your skin. There is evil in the world and reasons to become angry. What do you do with those emotions? Do you stuff them? Ignore them? Distract yourself and move around them? The Psalms teach us to acknowledge them and move through them with God in prayer. In fact, there is an entire category of Psalms in the Hebrew Bible called “Imprecatory Psalms” that invoke judgment, calamity or curses upon one’s enemies or those perceived as the enemies of God.
Our problem is we lack self-compassion and so we immediately judge our emotions as either good or bad. If an emotion is a “good” one (i.e. usually happy, joyful, thankful) we welcome it and experience it. But if an emotion is a “bad” one (i.e. usually fear, anger, sadness, grief) we want to get rid of it as fast as possible.
In her book Emotional Agility, Susan David says, “Emotions are just data, they are not directions.” That is a very important thing to remember. Just because I feel like smashing my enemies’ babies into the rock, does not mean I take action. Those emotions are data – they are telling me about some value that I hold dear that perhaps my enemy has violated – but they are not directions for my behavior. How I move forward and act needs more input than my emotions alone. We all know what it feels like to act on a hot-headed emotion filled moment, only to regret our words or actions later.
Rich, full lives are not lives absent of suffering. The reason our favorite stories involve conflict and struggle is because those are elements that make for a great story – and for a great life.
If we are to acknowledge and be enriched by the emotions we experience, regular times of reflection are needed. Every faith tradition in the world seems to prize some form of silence. For Christ followers, silence is a time to hear from God and be reminded that you are his beloved child. Solitude is where I can pause and first acknowledge my emotions (step one), and then honestly and with no filter, bring them before God in prayer. It is amazing how emotions can lose their power over time when we do this. It may feel impossible in the moment, but with God all things are possible. Jesus transformed the 2 fish and 5 loaves into enough to feed 5 thousand people and he can transform our feelings into the soil of a great story too.

The Power of Showing Up

Think about the people in your life with whom you share refrigerator rights. Who is allowed in your refrigerator without asking? In whose house would you feel comfortable enough to take a bottle of water from the fridge without permission? My guess is that for many of us, our answer involves a small number of people.

Here is why our answer matters…
Jesus had a plan that the kingdom of God would invade the kingdom of earth. Jesus taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus’ vision is not of God getting us out of here (earth) to a safe eternity up there (heaven); rather, he envisions God bringing heaven to earth today and every day. In the kingdom called earth, the predominant values are power, status, recognition and advancement. But in another reality that Jesus called the kingdom of heaven, the last shall be first, the weak are esteemed, those who mourn are comforted and the meek will inherit the earth.
Do you know what Jesus’ concrete strategy is to see this plan realized? His strategy is to form his followers into a new community to model for the world an alternative way of living. In Christ’s vision, this new community of people would march to the beat of a different drum. They would not operate by the earthly kingdom’s values. This new community would not look to power, accomplishment and wealth for their worth because they would have their eyes fixed instead on a man who voluntarily died on a cross. This new community of people would not need to hustle and hurry to prove they are worthy because their worth would already and always be secure because of their belovedness in God’s sight. They would remind each other of that all the time! Their values would not be shaped by the kingdom of earth because they would see themselves as citizens of heaven. They would not be about popularity, power and privilege; they would be about faith, hope and love.
Back to the refrigerator question. Living by heavenly values means extending our borders and taking relational risks of hospitality. It means cultivating the kinds of open-hearted, open-doored friendships that foster trust and reciprocity. It means having a wider circle of friends with whom to share refrigerator space! This is the way the tiny community grows into a mighty life force of divine love, bringing heaven to earth.
Through this little community called the church-consisting of you and I and brothers and sisters around the world; past, present, and future-Jesus said God is going to change the world. We are the heart of Jesus’ vision and strategy. Every time you show up, you are bringing heaven to earth. Every time you show up in worship, every time you show up in community, every time you show up in service, “up there” is coming “down here.” If you are a follower of God in the way of Jesus, then God’s Holy Spirit indwells you. When you show up, you do not show up alone. You show up with the indwelling presence and power of the Lord Jesus himself residing in you via God’s Holy Spirit. So, your showing up matters. Your showing up is a chance for God’s spirit to flow and for God’s heavenly kingdom to transform earth.

A Story For You

Anyone’s story…

At the dinner party, as she mingled with new acquaintances, they asked her, “What do you do for a living?” She replied, “Oh, I do several things….” and she launched into her list of various jobs.

“Wow, you’re amazing, I don’t know how you do so much!” several exclaimed.

Deep inside, she felt a twinge of sadness because she knew that what made her amazing in their eyes and in her own eyes was not who she was so much as what she did. The admiration, the definition, the wow-factor wasn’t about the more real and honest internal stuff; it was about the external stuff. It wasn’t about joyfulness, kindness and generosity; it was about juggling many responsibilities, keeping plates spinning, and never crying about it.

It wasn’t their fault for marveling. She had laid her own bed. She had pushed, hustled, worked hard, proven her worth, achieved countless life goals, and pleased others, all to avoid pain. Addiction does that. Addiction masks the pain. Her addiction to proving she could do it all was masking painful questions like: “Will I be invited, included and loved if I don’t prove myself? Will I be worthy of love and belonging if I don’t get a lot of stuff done?” Even tonight, she could feel those questions pulsing behind her smiles and charming conversations with other guests.

My story…

The woman in the story above sounds a lot like me not too long ago. Then I turned 40, and everything shifted – not so much from a schedule perspective, a time-management framework, or a huge vocational shift. But everything changed because of a new realization on the inside. The old way of living had only left me feeling exhausted, frantic, disconnected and lonely. I needed a new way that wasn’t about proving my worth. I started to delve into what “wholeness” could mean in my life. Wholeness meant mindful attentiveness rather than constant achieving. It meant being okay with letting people down at times. I have slowly, carefully stopped reporting to everyone who asks me for anything and have begun reporting to the still small voice within. When that voice says rest, I drive to the mountains and temporarily ignore email. When that voice says it is time for a family day, I leave my work undone and go home to the people I love. The shift isn’t easy, and it isn’t complete. The shape of it might look different for others in different circumstances, but for me, when I honor this invitation from God, it is freedom, and peace, and life. Some days are two steps forward and three steps back, but inside I sense a fundamental change to my internal value structure; my longings and motivations have shifted.

Before: Busyness and hard work were always the best way through. Now: Rest, quiet, and connection are usually the best way forward. Before: What I did defined who I was. Now: My worthiness and value are more rooted in my being a beloved child of God. I am learning to live like I cannot lose favor.

Epilogue…

People called her amazing for what she juggled, and she kept juggling. But today she is creating something different and beautiful that cannot be seen but feels so much more grounded and true.

The Tunnel of Chaos

There is a tunnel called chaos. Have you ever been in it? It’s a place where you get lost in an endless feeling of never enough – never enough time, never enough resources, never enough support, never enough people, never enough. This tunnel of chaos makes you feel like you are running, running, running without an end in sight. In this tunnel, sometimes it seems like you could maybe try to step out of the race for a minute, but then you immediately think: “Who would I be? And how would I know if I were worthy of love and belonging?” All of your life you’ve proven your worth through striving and performing. You are a capable one, you are a talented one, you are a strong and able person. You’ve got this, you’ve always got this.
In the beginning it was fun. You felt a surge of energy to be able to offer something of value to the world, but then over time it felt more like an addiction than a calling, and now it’s just a habit. This is how you live: busy, driven, preoccupied, isolated, addicted. Addicted to outcomes, addicted to work, addicted to an image of perfection. Perfect leader, perfect parent, perfect online profile, perfect life. You don’t like to admit it, but you’re addicted to proving your worth through performance. When people ask, “How are you doing?” you answer, “Busy,” and if they probe further, you honestly don’t know the answer.
Of course, it’s not always that way. Moments of honesty, vulnerability, and truth make you long for more.  The tunnel of chaos that initially felt so thrilling has gotten increasingly dissatisfying. You want something truer, less forced, less phony. You want to shed the racing gear that has served you well through your 20’s and maybe your 30’s, but it is hard and scary, because who will you be without those clothes? Will you be enough without the pretending and performing? What if people think you’re a slacker? And since all of the running involves using and sharing your “spiritual gifts,” would it be spiritually irresponsible to slow down?
This conundrum is part of growing up. Richard Rohr said, “Unless you ‘weep’ over your own phoniness, hypocrisy and wounded-ness, you probably will not let go of the first half of life.”
Maturity feels like leaving our false selves for our true selves. Maturity involves leaving the tunnel of chaos filled with rat races and hamster wheels to enter the unknown land of your good and worthy self in Christ. Discipleship includes realizing that you were born worthy of love and belonging, not because of what you can do, but because of who you are. It takes courage and daring to live with your whole heart wide open to God, without any pretense or performance layers, but the gifts of such vulnerability are rest and contentment.

Bloodlines!

One of the things I’ve struggled with since adopting Lyla is a guilty-mom feeling that says, “Susie, you are not Chinese, and a Chinese mom would be a better mom than you.” I know many of you are ready to say either, “Yes, that’s why I don’t believe in international adoption,” -or- “Oh, Susie, that is ridiculous, you’re a great mom!” But this is a real struggle for me. I know there are infinite perspectives on adoption, and international adoption in particular, but we are past that now, and Lyla is ours. I love her with all my heart and cannot imagine loving her anymore. Over this past year, I’ve been working through my bouts of shame and self-doubt in light of God’s faithfulness and the truth of His timeless word to us in the ancient scriptures. Just recently my friend pointed me in a direction that has helped tremendously. Here was the gist of our conversation:
Once we are in Christ, everything about our bloodline becomes second to who we are in Christ. That is not to say our ethnicity, race, and background are unimportant – they have a lot to do with who we are and how God may want to work through us. However, once we are in Christ, the blood of Jesus becomes the most important thing about us.  Our adoption into the family of God, our wealth in Christ, our citizenship in heaven are now more important than our standing or membership in any other cultural or political system. We are citizens of heaven!
“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  -Galatians 3:26-28
This insight is moving me into a stronger conviction that inter-racial relationships are not just allowed by God but they provide an especially unique and important witness to the gospel of Christ: in Christ, we are new creations. In Christ, we are citizens of heaven (Phil 1), living as exiles here on earth (James 1 & 1 Peter 1); this is not our ultimate home. In Christ, we have been transferred from the “kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of his dear son” (Col 1). This means we cross every barrier – social, cultural, ethnic, and class -freely in Jesus, extending friendship, forgiveness, and love to each other because Christ has done this for us. We do so with gentleness and respect, getting out of the safe, homogeneous, comfortable same-ness of those who are like us and follow God’s leading in our lives. Very often, Jesus leads us into new, unfamiliar, and different places and relationships. We never lose our culture or disregard others’, but in Christ, everything is transformed, and we share a bond of unity that is more powerful than our differences.

Are you a “people over task” or “task over people” kind of person?

Our staff just returned from a retreat up in Summit County and one of the goals for our time away together was simply to get to know one another more and the unique ways God has made us. To aid us in this task we did the Gallup Strengths Finder assessment. Basically this tool reveals a person’s top “strengths.”  It was fun and fascinating to learn more about the strengths of each staff member. One of the things that struck me during this activity is that every strength has a blind spot – and that as followers of Christ we do not boast in our strength but rather in our weaknesses because in these Christ shows His strength in us.
I’m not discrediting the value of the Strengths Finder exercise; it’s still very valuable to understand how God has naturally gifted us. However one of my “strengths” is Achiever. Basically I like to get stuff done… every day… like, every single day… even on vacation. It gives me a positive energy charge to achieve things.
This serves me well in my life as a pastor; however, like with all strengths, the blind spot is that I can over-function in ways that prioritize tasks over people. I need to acknowledge this dimension of my “Achiever” strength and invite Christ to be sufficient in my weakness.
How can Christ be sufficient in us if we’re unwilling to acknowledge weakness and only boast in strength? Psalm 127 says, “Unless the LORD builds a house, the work of the builders is wasted.” The second part of this psalm says, “Children are a gift from the LORD.”
What a fascinating contrast!  The Psalmist is talking about our work and what is truly of value. So often our culture seeks to turn us into machines who are driving, driving, driving only to realize we’ve wound up nowhere. We climb, climb, climb only to find out our ladder is up against the wrong wall.
But children are the contrasting picture the Psalmist gives. Children are a picture of relational gifts born out of love, not efficiency. Many relational gifts are born out of love. Throughout Scripture, God reminds us that love is our life breath. Giving and receiving love, in communion with God and others, is our deepest hunger and purpose. Everything else is secondary.
Even if my strength is achievement, and yours is financial planning or database improvement or whatever God has given you that you do well- as followers of Christ, we need to follow his example and prioritize our relationships with people above our tasks.

You don’t have to be good.

I’ve recently re-discovered poet Mary Oliver, and I wonder why I ever wandered from having her poems echo in my mind and heart daily. One poem that has spoken deeply to my heart is this one:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
            love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
Calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
                                                -Mary Oliver
I love this poem because it reminds me that I have been made in the image of God. As God’s creation, what I most want deep, deep, deep down is union with my first love, the Triune God who made me. All of my efforts to “be good” are really just misguided attempts for union, for oneness. Mary Oliver helps me return to my truest self, with compassion, by reminding me, “You do not have to be good.” Tell that to your inner-Puritan who has been striving to prove your worth through many versions of “walking on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.” All along, Jesus has continued to simply invite, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” This is what I’m really wanting, even though I myself may not always know it. God made “the soft animal of your body,” and He designed that soft animal of you to flourish best in an environment where you are fully known, fully loved, with no fear of rejection. The only place that exists is in the sweet embrace of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The #1 Key Ingredient for Getting Through Your Next Relational Conflict

Tim and I got in a fight recently, and seemingly out of nowhere we were spinning, spiraling, at odds, and having trouble finding our way back to each other. In the midst of our tunnel of chaos, everything seemed so serious! We were cool and prickly towards one another like reptiles. Once we reconciled and found our way back to connection with each other, we were warm again, kind, and soft. When we are in a good place together, we relate like puppies, playful, creative and fun. But when we disconnect, we relate like reptiles, icy and aloof.
In his book A Failure of Nerve, Edwin Friedman writes this regarding anxious systems, be it an anxious family system, church staff, company, or an entire political system:

What contributes to this loss of perspective is the disappearance of playfulness, an attribute that originally evolved with mammals and which is an ingredient in both intimacy and the ability to maintain distance. You can, after all, play with your pet cat, horse, or dog, but it is absolutely impossible to develop a playful relationship with a reptile, whether it is your pet salamander, no matter how cute, or your pet turtle, snake, or alligator. They are deadly serious (that is, purposive) creatures.   Chronically anxious families (including institutions and whole societies) tend to mimic the reptilian response: Lacking the capacity to be playful, their perspective is narrow. Lacking perspective, their repertoire of responses is thin. Neither apology nor forgiveness is within their ken. When they try to work things out, their meetings wind up as brain-stem storming sessions. Indeed, in any family or organization, seriousness is so commonly an attribute of the most anxious (read “difficult”) members that they can quite appropriately be considered to be functioning out of a reptilian regression. Broadening the perspective, the relationship between anxiety and seriousness is so predictable that the absence of playfulness in any institution is almost always a clue to the degree of its emotional regression. -Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix

These words resonate with me! Are you experiencing stuck-ness in your home? In a friendship? In your business? With your kids?  The #1 thing standing in the way of you seeing a way through your situation today may be your serious posture, and the key ingredient to get you through may just be a little playfulness. Remember the importance of playfulness and its amazing ability to change the mood, open up perspective, and nurture possibilities that are otherwise buried under the weight of seriousness and purpose.  What a gift!
Playfulness stems from joy. Sometimes joy is hard to find. Nehemiah said, “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” During tough times, the core of your joy, if you have joy at all, is going to be in your relationship with God. There are no limits to God’s joy or His strength; we have full access to these gifts. In recalling God’s availability and sufficiency, we regain our playfulness and our ability to become the non-anxious presence that is needed to find a way through.

Your Best 10 Minutes Today

There is this sickness. It’s called hurry-sickness. Most of us are infected; I know I often am. The symptoms look like this: a nagging sense that there’s never enough time, a lack of meaning or depth or joy in life, a lack of compassion, a lack of grace. Have you experienced any of these? Our brains actually release more adrenaline into our bodies when we’re in a hurry and so we feel more stress, and then we get angry, or impatient with ourselves and with others. We stop experiencing grace, and we lack grace.
Here is the thing. Jesus was never in a hurry. Jesus was busy, he had demands on his time, he had many pressures, and there was stress and plenty to do, but he was never in a hurry. There are many times when we read about Jesus withdrawing from the crowds, going off to be alone. If you look at the life of Christ, you see he would get up early and spend time alone in prayer. He would sometimes wait when others felt the need to rush. He had the courage to say no even to urgent requests.
And this Jesus says to you and me, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden light.”
That is Jesus’ yoke. That’s his rhythm of life. And we have to learn to walk in step with Him.
So, here is what I want you to do. I want you to say, “I quit. I quit hurrying. I quit pretending all is fine with this constant rushing inside that is killing my soul.” Instead, I want you to set a time each day – just 10 minutes – to practice slowing. One of the best ways to combat a habit of speeding up is to introduce a habit of slowing down.
Set the timer, just 10 minutes each day. Stop whatever you’re doing. Just stop. Close your email, turn off your phone, remove all distractions and just sit in silence. Slow down your breathing and just do nothing. The point is not to have some spiritual epiphany; the point is simply to allow your body to experience unhurried time. Our bodies need to experience unhurried time.
Sometimes, in those tiny moments we become aware of things we have forgotten or just lost sight of in the midst of all our running. We loose sight of things that matter, things like this: God really cares about you. He really cares about your life. Actually, you are not alone, you are never, ever alone. In whatever you are facing today, God is with you and will continue to walk with you through whatever Goliath-situation you might be facing.