why i fail at writing ministry updates

LoveFeast-9.11.13-15when i first moved in over here to this westside neighborhood, knowing the statistics about its crime and poverty, and seeing with my own eyes that it was most definitely very different than anywhere i had lived in my privileged life thus far, i wrote on my blog a lot about the lives of the folks i was meeting. i wrote about the people we were helping and how. i wrote about what they were struggling with and my yearning to see them have more. i wrote freely partly because i knew they would never read it (they wouldn’t have internet connection or a computer) and because most of it i would say to their faces, too.

but these days i can’t find it in me to write about “them.” nor can i even see their unfolding stories with the crystal clear precision that i once thought i could. i don’t know how to summarize who they are, why they struggle, what’s going on in their lives/hearts, or what God is up to in their stories.

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so when it comes time to attempt to write for the boiler room blog, or to write a ministry update letter, i get so stuck. i sit there thinking about the people we are here on the westside to serve, and i think, “i can’t think of anyone! what are we even DOING over here?!” (yeah, sometimes self-doubt and panic set in). but it isn’t true that there isn’t anyone we’re serving, nor is it true that God isn’t writing a good story with their lives… it’s just that… well, maybe it’s simply that “they” have become “us.” what were once case studies are now long-term, living-and-changing relationships with people. and though their number is few, the relationships are deepening and enduring.

the people we’re here to serve now serve alongside us, setting up feasts and serving meals. the people we’re here to minister to now share keen scriptural insight at Sunday gathering. the folks we’ve been praying for now offer up their own startlingly potent prayers.

and, yes, they are — some of them — still addicted or unemployed or living on the streets or struggling in relationships or looking for a free set of mittens on a cold day.

how can all of that be true at once? how do i put that in a ministry update? how do i make a statistic out of that?

do not despise the day of small things

sept-saturday-hike-4small seems to be a theme ’round here these days.

there’s the obvious smalls, named Hazel and Gus, to whom most of my creative energy, time, and effort are devoted day in and day out. they come with many other small things: small time blocks for activities caused by small attention spans (hazel) and small wakeful periods (gus), small clothing to wash and fold and tuck away in drawers, small bodies to lift, carry, cuddle, and bathe.

it’s taken me a considerable amount of time to get okay with all that smallness, to let go of resentment over how their smallness keeps me from the supposedly bigger things i’d like to think i’m capable of, and to learn to savor and celebrate it for the beautiful gift that it truly is.

but there’s another kind of smallness i’ve been grappling with lately. the smallness that comes with our ministry this season.

see, we launched this 10-month live-and-learn discipleship school we’re borrowing from 24-7 Prayer called The Vision Course. it’s a beautiful life model, a heart-shifting curriculum, a year set aside to let Jesus touch students in important ways. i’m proud to be offering it here and proud of Coop and Tim and Tony for shaping it so well and leading it with such integrity and passion.

but we have two students. two students where we were hoping for six to eight.

and when you get a number that much lower than the target number, it can be easy to think of it as failure. then there’s our friends who launched a [somewhat] similar school in our neighborhood and they have 7. so i start to compare (not a great idea). and i wonder if we’re doing something wrong so God isn’t blessing it, or if we aren’t attractive enough as a ministry, or if we didn’t recruit widely enough or well enough. these two students are pure gold, so it isn’t who they are uniquely/individually that’s a problem. but the number of them… it’s been bugging me. more than i care to admit.

small often means failure or shortcoming. that’s the trouble, isn’t it? somehow in our culture small has come to mean something less-than, unworthy of attention.

grace came to me in the form of our Older Wiser Mama-Bible-Study Facilitator a couple weeks ago, when she gave us 5 passages of scripture to look up, along with instructions to guess what the theme is and why she chose it for us.

guess what the word was? “small.”

each passage was from the gospels. in each one, Jesus is talking about or demonstrating how He values and works with smallness. examples: faith small as a mustard seed moves mountains, a small boy’s tiny lunch feeds thousands, two tiny sparrows whose fall is noticed by the Father, a small bit of money faithfully and sacrificially invested or offered. how had i not noticed this before?! how had i come to see feel that Jesus’ call was to large-scale, dramatic, full-throttle action instead of ordinary, small-scale living offered in love to Him?

this opens up so much grace for me as a mother, occupied as i am with so many literally small things. it also offers up to me some reassurance that even though we at the boiler room have only two lives to invest in this year (rather than 8 or 50 or more), we have two. lives. (!!) to invest in. do you see the gravity of that?!

the Good Shepherd is one who leaves 99 to search after 1. ONE. a single life is worth running after in passionate pursuit. the Father God is like the father of the prodigal (AND his brother who also was having trouble grasping how much his daddy loved him and who was also pursued by that daddy!), who pursues the naughty son while he’s still far off and throws a big fat party over him. Our Jesus does not wait until we’ve gathered a critical mass before He says that it counts. 1 counts. 2 count.

and then — as if the above isn’t enough — He reminded me of scripture that was prophesied over the SBR in it’s infancy:

Do not despise these small beginnings, for the LORD rejoices to see the work begin, — Zecchariah 4:10

so i say Amen.

far be it from me to say that what the Father calls significant is something other than just that.

pastor reverend tim

today’s mail brought an official document: the sort that you’re probably supposed to frame and hang on your office wall. 

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it was a certificate of ordination. 

in some ways, it doesn’t mean much. i mean, it changes virtually nothing in terms of the work he does or the way he moves through this world as a minister of the gospel. 

it does have some implications for how we do our taxes, and perhaps for certain sub-sections of supporters and watchers of the boiler room it will cause them to feel more reassured about the legitimacy of it all. 

but mostly this feels like a fun piece of paper to celebrate something he’s been for a long while already.

i’m also looking at this piece of paper and all the implications that it carries, and i see that i am now more officially a pastor’s wife. which i wanted to be for a long while in college. and then i didn’t want to be one at all! and now what the word pastor means to me has changed so completely from what it had meant, that i feel actually pretty neutral about the title; it certainly feels less lofty. except that i know this piece of paper is one more outward sign of a commitment that we’ve made as a family to a particular life path. this little piece of paper seems to say, “there’s no turning back. this is your road now. you’ve been set apart until further notice. be true.” 

it also just so happens that today Tony sent us a link to this really great article by Tim Keller’s wife, called The Dangers of “Faking It” in Ministry. it’s real good. it cautions and exhorts me. if we’re going to do this, i want to be the real deal. but i have some fear and trembling about the dangers she describes in this article, because i am no stranger to their temptations, their constant presence at the fringes of our life. 

God, give us grace. Love us enough to keep us real, even if it hurts. 

recommit

for so long i was checked out. i had on glasses that made my distorted perspective still seem real.

and that’s ok. i think there’s lots and lots of grace for that season. i am even willing to bet all my money that it had/has purpose, though i can’t yet tell you what it was.

i’m recommitted now: to being here, to giving my husband to this work and to partnering with him as i am able, to raising my children here and making it home, to living on a modest salary dependent on fund-raising, to seeking Him for all that we need to keep going, to keeping our lives and hearts open to the neighbors who sometimes walk in chaos, and to the many young people who will walk in an out amongst us seeking to serve or to heal or to learn.

this city dwelling. this boiler room work. this “being the church” gig. 

it’s pretty sweet. 

i just forgot for a while. 

thankfully, Papa is faithful to remind us of things we forget. He’s using our board of directors and the beautiful, prayer-drenched documents they’re drafting to put into words what God has called us to be and to do. He’s using a threatened financial crisis that forces us to re-evaluate. He’s using a gentle drawing of myself into His presence in 10 minute increments each day. He’s using the words of friends and the visions and prophecy of brothers and sisters. He’s even using a growing dream of house here that we believe will be our Home for the long haul, for the many children and the visiting pilgrims, and even transient students. Through all of these avenues, He’s correcting my heart posture.

i read this in anne lamott’s new book (definitely worth reading) a couple of weeks ago, and wrote it down in my journal:

for us to acknowledge that we have been set free from toxic dependency, from crippling obsession or guilt, that we have been graced with the ability  to finally forgive someone, is just plain astonishing. you can’t have gotten from where you were — gripped by anxiety, tiny with fear — to come through to freedom, for God’s sake. to have been so lost that you feel abducted, to feeling found, returned, and set back onto your feet: oh my God, thankyouthankyouthankyou. thank you. thanks.

i like this because it speaks to that most awesome sort of miracle: the rearranging of a human heart that doesn’t know how to help itself. and i feel that He’s doing one of these sorts of miracles in my heart right now, tender and tentative as it may yet be.

He’s doing it regarding our life work and where we call home. He’s doing it regarding my ability to rest in this motherhood role. and He’s doing it in my marriage.

that’s my testimony today.

stepping back

he leads me beside quiet waters, he makes me to lay down in green pastures. he restores my soul.

the stockbridge boiler room has been a significant part of my life, my spiritual journey, my healing, and my work for about 4 years now. even that year when we lived in madison, i carried it in my heart still. the neighborhood that the boiler room is centered in, the prayer rooms it begins and encourages along, the networking with students and pastors and people across the city, the love feasts it hosts, the family that it is… all of this has made up the landscape on which my recent life — my NEW life as a transformed follower of Jesus — has played itself out. for heaven’s sake, i even met my husband via the boiler room, got married in its yard, and dedicated my firstborn to God at it’s sunday gathering. it has been so hard to imagine life without it.

which is why, i think, for the last year and some months i’ve been trying so hard to make it work.

while i was pregnant with hazel, i felt massive, glacier-deep shifts occurring in my heart. the energy of my life and heart were turning in a new direction: facing her, my daughter. suddenly, it felt harder to care about the homeless men behind my house, i just wanted to love her. logistically, her addition to our family also made showing up for the work and shared life of the boiler room more challenging, and realistically i have not been “around” as much in this past year as i have been in the past, or even as much as i would have preferred. it has been a sacrifice.

and our team — our SBR family — has worked with me, allowing me to rearrange my priorities and responsibilities to maximize my leadership role, changing up the places and times that we meet in order to accommodate hazel’s napping schedule so that i could continue to be involved. they have honored and received me as a sister, a trustworthy leader, a worthwhile and gifted member of the family and doer of the work. how kind they have been, how accommodating.

but all year, in fits and starts, there has been self-doubt, a desire to run away and have a “normal” life, a growing resentment towards the sacrifices of the ministry, and more disgust than love for the neighborhood we are supposed to be here to serve. each meeting felt overwhelming, every project felt like an obligation. the scale tipped so that the sacrifice and hard work of this ministry life felt heavier than the joy. and that hasn’t always been the case, nor do i think that’s they way it is supposed to be when living as Jesus’ disciple. and so i worked at figuring out what wast wrong with me, trying hard to find places where i needed to practice repentance, get more disciplined, pray and surrender more, or have an attitude adjustment. i talked through it with tim and with jenn and with other friends, all of whom have helped me recognize and walk away from any lies that were playing a role in my dilemma. and many times i thought i had finally found “the thing” that needed to be adjusted so that i could carry on.

then we took the month of august for our sabbatical, as we do each year. and when, on the way home from vacation, my heart and mind grew heavier and more overwhelmed and i became filled with dread at the thought of returning home to my normal life… well, i knew something wasn’t right. a few days later, i had a melt-down in the office of our wise marriage counselor. i wept while telling her and tim how tired i am, how sick i am of being in ministry, how much i loathe and want out of our neighborhood, how i can’t see the purpose of it all anymore, how i can’t do it all, how i just want to stay home with my babies. and judy looked at me and gave it a name: burn-out. (oh, so that’s what it’s called.) she said my feelings are normal and probably something i should listen to; that i need to stop assuming something is wrong with me for feeling these things and instead consider that God might be leading me into a different path in this season.

tim has had reservations about coming too quickly to this conclusion. i understand that. there are so many good and sweet things about having healthy biological family units at the center of a ministry together: all the important things that it communicates about the family of God, the blessing that our children can be to the college students and 20-somethings we parent and work with, the example we can be in a neighborhood full of broken families. and, of course, tim is stronger with me by his side. he’s more balanced and more confident (i guess that’s why we call women “helpmeet”), and we had assumed that in order for me to be the helper he desires, i need to stay on the front lines with him. but what if, Judy suggested, i can be a helpmeet to him just as well even if HE is the one doing the bulk of the ministry work? oh, there’s a novel idea. at last tim said, “Well, i think we’ll need to tell everyone that you’re stepping down in September.”

the rush of relief, that tearful gratitude i felt in that moment. it was like, “yes, finally. i’ve been heard. i’ve wanted this for so long.”

and so, after sitting on it for several days, and thinking through some logistics and getting some counsel… today we told our team our decision. we explained what that will look like, what it will and will not mean. i got a little tearful. i had to fight back feelings that i was abandoning people or making their lives more difficult by stepping down. but that peace about the rightness of it didn’t waver. i headed home after that morning meeting of catching up with my SBR family, officially released and blessed by them.

i know there might be a little span of time here where i’ll be like a turtle pulling its neck deep inside its shell, preferring total retreat from the things that have worn it out or frightened it. but i also know that Father has deposited in me a love for His kingdom, a concern for the poor, and a desire to life my life according to His purposes, even if it seems radical. so though i don’t feel very in touch with those roots right now, I’m trusting Him to draw me back out of my shell in the right timing, perhaps in new ways this time, but with great joy and in a manner that brings much praise to His name.

meantime, tim is carrying on. he’s still sure of it. for him the scale still tips in favor of joy. he’ll work harder now, since the position we once shared will now be entirely his. but he’s up for it. i praise God for that.

here is some of what is rising in my heart in the wake of finally surrendering to that inclination to step back:

  • i am looking forward to learning and mastering the art forms of managing my household well (including cleaning and menu planning and budgeting), and mothering intentionally and creatively. our entire marriage has been spent with both of us in ministry, and the timeline of our shared life has been a whirlwind of events in quick succession (meeting, moving, marriage, transit-leadership, moving again, buying and fixing a house, beginning SBR leadership, having a baby, getting pregnant a second time), and so there hasn’t been that time period in which to really settle down into some of those foundational skills. i want to master them and do them with attention to the presence of God.
  • i suspect i’ll actually be a fresher and more positive encourager and helpmeet for tim now.  i had been so tied up in knots of cynicism and criticism about the boiler room ministry because of my own lack of peace about continuing on in it, that i carried that energy into all of our conversations with him, with the end result of often making him feel discouraged or diminished in his life work. now i feel i’ll be more able to see it from his perspective (which is one of confidence and faithfulness and joy) and spur him on.
  • i am excited to be able to pour my time and energy into taking hazel on outings and to play dates that will stimulate and bless her, as well as to pursue photography, without feeling like i should be doing 20 other boiler-room related things instead (which just ends up paralyzing me).
  • i look forward to seeing how Father will direct my heart, and what divine appointments He will lead me into now that i won’t be moving out of a place of obligation or slavery, but of freedom. i wonder what he’ll do with some of those areas/interests in my life that seem to “have life on them” (as tim would say): photography, the birth community, motherhood, food.

His peace rests on my spirit today.

Hazel is napping now, and i’ve got a meal to clean up after and some things to put away. there are some errands to run later this afternoon, then my friend’s daughter’s 1st birthday to attend (and a dish to prepare and bring along). and all of these simple things are work enough. i’m going to go do them with joy and purpose.

dancing in hard places

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several years ago Jesus showed me that the way it was going to be with He and i was something like dancing in a wide-open field of wild flowers, joyful and free. and that’s the way that it was, just on the other side of a long season of suffering and then being healed by Him. He gave me respite and new life.

several months ago, one morning in the prayer garage, He gave me another picture of us dancing, only this time we were dancing on a massive expanse of rock, cracked here and there, an occassional flower bravely blooming in those cracks. “we’re still dancing together, but this time we are dancing in harder places,” He whispered to my heart. my Jesus, how i love you. for continuing to dance with me. and for giving me a forewarning.

right now, this word feels like it’s being proved true. this season feels very much like it’s about dancing on rocky ground.

it’s not circumstantial so much. we’re settled comfortably in our home, we adore our hazel girl, we have good work to do, we have strong relationships and good health. but in a much deeper place, a place a watching world doesn’t see, He is turning up soil of our marriage and the soil of our calling, and pulling things up for us to have a look at. that has not felt pleasant.

as i whined to Him about it a couple of weeks ago, He reminded me of that picture of us dancing on harder ground, and He reminded me that it isn’t without purpose. that the reason it feel so unrelentingly difficult is precisely because it is deep, transformational, and foundational.  it is important work, and work that He has not for one second lost control of, lest we despair. no, He’s directing it. and the resistance is in my weariness, my weary heart that says “really, do i have to do this sort of hard work again, God? didn’t we already spend years in therapy and prayer rooms working through all my junk? didn’t we get it all taken care of?”

nope.

because after a honeymoon season wears off, there’s stuff that gets exposed: about intimacy and hiding, about reacting to the other based less on who they actually are and more on soul impressions you’re falsely putting on them, about honoring and loving one another even when you’re angry or disappointed, and about judgements, with-holding, and selfish motivation.

and because once you start stepping into your life work and calling, which happens to be ministry, there’s stuff that gets dragged up there, too: about unworthiness and fear, about abdicating responsibility and wanting to hide, about functioning under the pressure of living a life that is watched, about feeling like a phoney, about feeling like you have to prove yourself, about lacking self-discipline and vision.

none of this goes away easy. none of it is a quick fix, and if we tried to make it so, it would come out sideways somewhere else, i am sure.

so i’m giving Him permission — as i call to mind how gentle and true His scalpel has been in the past — to go ahead and keep uprooting, keep applying pressure, keep pursuing my heart until He accomplishes His will in me. i will go there. i might cry about it from time to time, but i will go there with the One who has never released me from His gentle lead, no matter what sort of terrain we’re dancing on.

and the best part is knowing that on the other side of this, we’ll be standing on SOLID GROUND that you find only after you’ve struggled through the swamp land. what will be left standing will be enduring and we will be able to trust it confidently. that’s worth it.