Monday, February 8, 2016

On Choosing a Church

Or "On Choosing a Local Church and Staying There Even When You Realize It's Not Perfect or Even Ideal".

Or simply "Lesson Number 157 I Learned While in West Africa".

We were assigned host churches while we were in E2.  There were a variety of churches we partnered with, and since we E2ers came from a variety of different backgrounds, our experiences in those host churches ran quite the gamut.

It was a struggle for me, especially in the beginning, and to tell the truth, if I'd had the choice I probably would have looked for another church.  I didn't necessarily have the choice, so I stayed, and was encouraged by various people along the way to pray for God's perspective of the Church.

The experience taught me something valuable: we don't get to pick what parts of the Body of Christ we're going to love or be connected to.  Every single believer, every local group of true believers is part of that Body.  And Jesus loves His Church, all of it.  He calls us His bride.

If Jesus looks at that imperfect group of believers, that group I'm tempted to criticize, and sees them with such a great and amazing love, how could I consider them not worth my time?  Too much trouble to bother with?

Perhaps our society had influenced me more than I realized.  Society tells us if something doesn't work the way we want it to, we should find an alternative.  Society tells us that we need to look for things that fit us, that makes us feel comfortable and good.

I don't think we find that in the Word of God.  Take Paul's letters, for example.  He wrote to churches with immorality (think Corinthians), faulty teaching (think Galatians), confusion on certain doctrines (think Thessalonians), and even personal divisions (Corinthians again).  In addressing the various issues, I find it interesting that he never says something like, "Yeah, there are a lot of problems here, so you who are really sold-out for Jesus need to go somewhere else.  Somewhere there aren't so many problems."

Isn't that the advice we hear - and give - so often when people are struggling with issues in their local churches?  To find somewhere else to go?  (Now, to clarify, I'm not talking about essential doctrinal issues, like God's character, the authority of Scripture, the basis of salvation, and things of that nature.)  Except God doesn't seem to be encouraging such a course of action.  It's incongruous with the reality of who the Church is.

I was convicted that my attitude towards the Church - Jesus' Church - was both self-serving and ugly.

(Another clarifier: I'm not saying that everyone who leaves one church for another is necessarily sinning.  God can and does lead us to different places at different times.  But I believe we should be wary of leaving a local church simply because it doesn't meet our expectations or our perceived needs, or because we find issues with it.)

Fast forward to now.  I moved to a new place.  I needed a church.  In the past, I would have spent a fair amount of time and effort to find one I was comfortable with.  Something that met my personal expectations.  Except now I realize the point isn't to feel comfortable.  I'm asking the Lord to help me release my ideals, to love His Church, and to embrace the fellowship of people who are no more imperfect than I am.

There will be challenges of one kind or another, I'm sure.  There will be things we disagree on, personal preferences that differ, and toes that may get stepped on.  But this little group is part of His Church, and that, I think, is what matters in the end.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Grace, Personality, and Daily Trust

Hi, I'm Rachel.

Among other things I have been a hopeless perfectionist and a dreadful over-analyzer.  I say have been because as I've learned about grace, God has brought about a lot of changes in my life.

Grace has toned down that perfectionism in many ways, though I'll admit it still crops up more than I'd like it to.

Over-analyzing, on the other hand?  Well...let's just say that if it were a spiritual gift, it'd be mine.  I mean, thinking is good.  Analyzing situations before making decisions is good.  To a point.  I'm afraid I very easily cross over the line to ridiculous (e.g. spending hours trying to figure out the right kitchen towels to get) or even sinful (e.g. lack of trust, anxiety, or fear).

So here's the thing.  I'm seeing God work in my life in two ways, and I'm thankful for both.  He can change aspects of our personalities, removing certain tendencies as we grow closer to Christ.  I'm seeing that slowly (emphasis on slowly) happen with my perfectionism.  Sometimes, however, the work He does is in not removing those tendencies.  I still over-analyze nearly everything, and probably always will.  The other day He showed me that I can see it as a chance to grow.  For example, when a decision comes up at work, I can sit there and spin my mental wheels for half an hour, or I have the opportunity to take my mountain of questions and dump them on His lap, trusting Him to help me sort through what I need to.  And when the next decision comes up an hour later, I can do it again.  And again the next time.

I would love for Him to take away my constant need to analyze everything, like He's doing with my perfectionism.  But He hasn't, and instead - through it - gives me a reminder of my constant need to rely on Him.  Which is pretty cool.

Monday, February 1, 2016

When You Become Them

It used to provoke me to no end to hear some people talk about ministry in the States as if it was a second-class option to ministry overseas.  Good grief, some of my best, mostly Godly friends were serving God in the States, and then there were all the wonderful staff at MTC that invested so much in my spiritual growth (what would my experience have been like if they hadn't been serving in the US?).  I mean, how could people dare to say that Stateside missionaries were less-than?  Less deserving of support, less important, less spiritual?  Unthinkable!  There was no difference; we were ALL on the same team!  (Forgive my soap box.)

Then I moved to West Africa.

In spite of myself, I noticed a shift in my thinking.  Us vs. Them.  I didn't think "they" were less spiritual than "us", but there was so much about our respective experiences that differed.  They sat in climate-controlled offices drinking pumpkin spice lattes while we spent mind-numbing hours in language study, sweat literally dripping off us.  They got to live and work and fellowship with people of the same language and culture.  We were surrounded by people whom we did not understand and who did not understand us.  It was difficult not to imagine that our lives were just, well, so much harder.  Ugly as it is to admit this, I suppose in my earth-bound mind, the differences were enough to categorize - no, divide - us into two camps.

Sure, we were all serving God, but...

And then I bought a one-way ticket to the States, packed up everything, and flew "back home" with the idea that I'd likely be living there for a while.  Maybe forever.

Now I am "them".

It's a weird feeling.  I never planned that my life would turn out this way.  I mean, I'd wanted to serve God overseas since I was a pony-tailed little girl.  But that's not what He has for me, at least not at this point.  It's like I built a fence and suddenly find myself sitting on the wrong side of it.

I'll be honest, when I hear from people I knew in training or people I was on the field with talking about how they've finished language study and are moving into a village or such-and-such a ministry, I struggle.  I do not question that God has brought me here; I'm confident of that and I am truly grateful to be here.  But there is a sense of loss.  I'm no longer a part of all that, not in the way I had expected to be, at any rate.  My world doesn't look the same anymore and I'm not always sure how to relate to the different people in it.

So I'm praying for perspective.  To see us all as the team God intended.  To see Him as the center, the motivation, the common ground we have.  To see all believers as us.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Embracing Small

It may have been back in October (thanks to a book club) that I started thinking about small.  Or maybe it really started before then, when I came back to the States.

In the midst of all the transitions and the uncertainty of what I'd be doing in the future, I suppose it was only normal that I'd be asking myself a lot of questions.  Like, Who am I?  What is God up to?  How does His big plan tie in with my life?  What am I supposed to be doing?  Why did He bring me back?

These aren't the kind of questions that you can really leave on the surface.  They touch right to the core of everything: who God is and who we are.

God is big and amazing and so far beyond our ability to comprehend fully.  I'd seen that time and time again over the last couple years.  And I guess to the degree we understand God as big, we'll start to see ourselves as small.

Which is uncomfortable and difficult and confusing.  Among other things.

So there I was, aware of my big God with His big plan, and I was two shreds away from branding myself an utter failure, a girl without a clear direction, saddled with more questions than answers, unsure of who I really was after all that.

I guess I half-expected that He would respond by restoring my confidence, by giving me a renewed passion or vision.

Instead...nothing.

I think He was waiting until my heart stopped its frantic questioning, until I was still and deeply empty.

And in the emptiness, He whispered His truth: small was exactly who I was supposed to be.  I didn't have to be big and do great things for Him and have an amazing ministry.  He never intended for me to aim for big.  Just the opposite.  He created me small, unimpressive, ordinary - like a clay pot - because He is big and capable and the story is about Him.  After years of nearly crushing expectations for myself, I started realizing I was free to be unimpressive and let God be God.

Suppose my little things never become big things?  Suppose the ministry He gives me never impacts more than handfuls of people?  Suppose I don't have dramatic experiences or impressive stories in serving Him?

It's actually okay.  Because my hope stands squarely on who He is.  My joy comes from accepting - embracing - my own smallness and resting in the One who's got this all.

Small is more than okay.  It's wonderful.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Q & A: NTBI

So, you're at the Bible Institute.  What are you doing there?
My official role at this point is "guest hospitality coordinator".  Basically I'm supposed to run the guest house.

What does a day look like?
A lot of different things!  I book the rooms, oversee the cleaning (which is done by students), and buy any supplies needed (whether it be cleaning products, paper towels, or new sheets).  Right now there's also just a lot of learning how to do things, getting familiar with the system, updating documents, and stuff like that.  I'd say probably about half the evenings of the week have involved hanging out with people, and the other half I try to work on house or personal projects.

Where do you live?
I live in the school building right now, on the girls' floor.  I have my own apartment with a bedroom, living area, and kitchen (and tons of amazing storage space, which makes me so happy!).  Bathroom/showers are down the hall.

How's the weather?
Cold!  I had heard it was a much milder winter than usual, so I wasn't entirely prepared for how few days it has gotten above freezing.  We've had some snow, but not necessarily any really big storms.  Yet.

Do you have a church?
Yes!  Pretty much.  I'd visited this church twice when I'd stayed with Esther before, and at this point I'm planning to continue attending.

Overall, how's the transition been?
It's been really good so far.  I'm still learning my way around town, and I haven't entirely gotten into a routine yet, but for the most part, I'm feeling settled.  I'll admit there are times when my head feels like an overstuffed filing cabinet of names and faces (or even questions or ideas), but I'm sure that will lessen over time.

What are some things you love about being there?
People!  Oh my goodness, it makes my heart so happy that there are so many people to get to know. I can choose a different table to sit at every day for lunch and find people I haven't gotten to talk to yet.  The sheer possibility!  And the fact that discipleship and community (two things very important to me) are just waiting for me literally right outside my door.  And finally having a place to settle into after being in an in-between stage for so long.  And the snow.  It feels like being in a movie or something...so peaceful and serene and just so outside of most of my life's experience.  And having friends on staff and a girl from my home church here as a student.  So fun!

What are your long term plans?  Is this going to be your ministry for the next 10 years, or is it merely a stepping stone for something else?
No idea!  And actually, for one of the first times in my life, I'm totally okay with that.  In the past, it has been a struggle to settle when I knew I'd be moving in a year or two (which has been the story of much of the past six years).  But on the flip side, I also struggled to hold my plans for the future loosely and accept that while God might have me somewhere today it didn't automatically mean that He'd have me in that same place five years down the road.  All that to say, I really don't know His long term plan for me, but this is going to be home until He shows me otherwise!

What have you learned in the past several years that has helped with this new chapter?
One - embracing where God has put me is one of the biggest keys to joy. Noticing His gifts - having a thankful heart - is another key to joy.  Two - don't waste time looking for perfection.  In church, in relationships, in the home, anywhere.  I missed so many opportunities before because I was waiting for a more ideal whatever-it-was or till I felt more put-together.  When I stopped expecting perfection, it freed me to actually, well...live.  Three - (and this kind of goes along with the last one) don't be afraid of the messy.  That's realm where grace operates.  Move towards people, even when they're a mess or I'm unsure of what they need.  God's grace is enough.  Allow people in, even when I'm in the middle of something or my sink is full of dishes or I'm feeling scattered and not-enough.  God's grace is enough.  Four - God's got this.  I so do not need to try to control things, because He is entirely in control and entirely capable of handling everything.  I can rest in that.  Five - no matter what life brings, His love is so big and incredible and tenacious that nothing can ever separate me from Him.  Nothing, nothing, nothing!

What are some prayer requests?
Good relationships with staff and students.  Wisdom in priorities and how to manage my time.  Good sleep, good quiet times, good routines.  A brain that would quickly absorb the things I need to learn.  Reliance on God for everything.  And safety for those times when I need to drive in the snow...

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Remembering

Sometimes I look out the window at this snow-globe world of mine and wonder, Is this all for real?

African music playing is playing on Pandora and I'm thinking back to a year ago when I was walking to French class every day.  And then I think about how life looks now and all the cool people there are to get to know and how much I'm enjoying my job so far.

Thankfulness for being here sits side by side in my heart with a homesickness for West Africa.  It'll be that way for a while, I think.  Maybe always.

But how undeservingly rich am I?  I look at the experiences and the friends God has given me, the things He's has brought me through, the lessons He's taught me, the grace He's simply flooded me with this past year, and words fall short.

I can't pretend it's been easy.  Or that I've kept my eyes on Jesus every moment.

But in spite of me He is good and He's heaped up blessings on top of blessings till I can hardly hold them all.

So...I pause and remember how full life is because of Him.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Life Outside the Box{es}

Have I really been here a week?

And am I really here?!

It was just about a year ago that I started realizing God was nudging me back to the States.  At that point I hadn't much inkling of what exactly lay ahead for me (a roller coaster ride?).  Even when I got back in July, I really didn't know what I'd be doing, but I started looking at different possibilities with NTM USA.

After six months in no-man's land (well, technically it was my home assignment after two years on the field...), I am so happy to be moving onto the next thing.  I prayed for guidance so many times and sometimes it felt like there'd never be an answer, but at last...here I am.

And I'm honestly so thrilled to be here.  The journey that brought me to this point has showed me over and over that God is big.  Amazing.  Faithful.  Crazy good.  So I'm sitting at the edge of my seat right now, hardly able to wait for how He's going to write this next chapter.

I'm not always going to remember, I know.
Sometimes I'll listen to fear.
Sometimes I'm going to fight Him.
Sometimes it's all going to seem foggy and gray instead of sunny clear.

But.

That's okay.

Because He's still big and amazing and good and totally faithful whether or not I remember.

There's a hand still holding me
Even when I don't believe it

That much I've learned already.

- - -

And now, let's get to the pictures from the last 3+ weeks.


Christmas.  The only picture I took that day.  Lame, I know.

It's weird, it didn't feel like Christmas.  It was a good family time (although we missed Beck and my cousin Ben), but it just didn't seem like Christmas.  I don't know why.

Anyway, I'm glad for the time we had to eat and talk and watch a movie and just be together.

- - -

Packing.  I dare not say much more, lest I traumatize myself with the memories.



I'm pretty sure every box I brought with me had at least one green and one brown thing.  You'd think I liked those colors or something.

- - -

California has had an unusually cold winter - in our area, it got below freezing repeatedly (which is very rare for us).




Cool frost, huh?  Also, our backyard has started sprouting mushrooms.  Not good.  (It's usually a sign that lawn is too damp and/or not properly aerated.)  But at least the make for a couple interesting shots.



- - -

So I rolled in here last Sunday night, after a six-day trip.  The weather was beautiful nearly the whole time (HUGE answer to prayer), I got to see friends along the way, and I checked Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio off my list (which brings me to a grand total of 23 states).  The whole trip just went very smoothly, which I was super thankful for.

However, I was more than happy to be out of the car and to sleep in "my own bed".  Even if that bed was new to me. :)

I started unpacking a bit when I got in, and the apartment looked like tornado country.  (Trust me, this wasn't the worst of it.  There's a reason why there's no picture of the bedroom.)



But things took shape, and happily by the next afternoon all was unpacked and home-y feeling.


Mom gave me a coffee sampler for Christmas - a brilliant gift, I must say - and so Monday morning I was able have a cup before tackling the rest of the unpacking.

You know three things that make a place feel like home to me (after moving)?  Lighting a candle, brewing that first cup of coffee, and putting up my favorite-ever picture frame.  It's like my heart sighs a happy sigh after all that.



Hello, Monday.


Hello, powdered sugar snow!


And hello, little home. :)

It's small and simple, but it's cozy, and it has amazing storage!  After my apartment in Senegal, I was a bit surprised to find that a place this size could have so much storage space: all those kitchen cabinets (and I don't even have them all filled - the luxury!), a pantry, a built-in glass-doored cabinet, and a closet in the bedroom.  Will wonders never cease?!


Take a look around.



That little pitcher is possibly one of my favorite thrift store finds of all times.  So. cute.  And green.  (Of course, green!)


There's the built in cabinet, with all my dishes and pots and such.



Baskets.  They're my one weakness.


A door!  Perhaps it leads to Narnia!



Or perhaps not.

You want to know how many times I've been to Walmart in since being here?  Four.   Yes, four.  In one week.  It was hard to know what all I'd need to buy right off the bat, and also...bringing a trunk load of groceries up three flights of stairs is a bit of work, so it was easier just to make a couple smaller runs than try to get everything at once.



This may not seem like that exciting of a find, but I discovered this stuff in Missouri and loved throwing it in beans.  I don't recall seeing it back home (maybe I didn't look hard enough?), though, so I was quite pleased that the Walmart here carried it.


Here's the bedroom.




Top of the action packer = temporary bookshelf.


There's my favorite picture frame, on top of the dresser.  I love everything about it.  The rustic wood-and-iron frame, the sepia-toned picture, the place it was taken, the girls standing on either side of me.  It's gone everywhere with me.



I quite like my new little place.

- - -


Life being life, there's been new-but-less-happy stuff too.

My grandpa passed away the night before I left on the drive out here - the first grandparent I've lost.  We don't know for sure if he was trusting fully in Jesus' work or in his own when he died.  That makes it so much harder.
People I loved - and still love - walked away from Jesus.  Left the church, threw out the Bible, said Jesus is all a hoax.  And now the last little shred of a relationship with them I was trying to hold onto is over.  What in the world do you even do?

In the midst of the move and the transition, it's been difficult to process much, but I realize I don't entirely know how to deal with these griefs.

I know grace is the answer somehow.  I don't know what it's supposed to look like, or exactly what it means for these situations, but I do know it's there.  He's there.

Somehow knowing that I don't need to do more than come, snuggle up in His love, and let Him be God is a comfort.  Even in all of this.