Back in the Bible Belt

I grew up in the buckle of the Bible belt.
But I never really thought much about it until I moved away for eleven years, and then moved back. Things I used to take for granted, or never even took note of, sing out loudly to me now through the eyes of my children who did not grow up here.
My husband’s job and educational pursuits took us away to Charlotte, North Carolina. I had comforted myself with the idea that I was still a Southern girl living in another Southern town. I found out quickly that it just wasn’t so. Charlotte is a huge melting pot of people from all over the world. On my very first trip to the grocery store there, I passed a man on a cell phone speaking some foreign European-ish language I didn’t understand. I stared at him with my mouth gaping open, and it was then I knew I wasn’t in Kansas, er Birmingham, anymore.

Much to our amazement, in the birthplace of Billy Graham, we found there to be a large Christian-hostile population.
It was the first place I had ever experienced true discrimination due to my faith. There were many who didn’t want to have anything at all to do with God or the church. This posed a problem for us for a while, right up to the point that God gave us new eyes to see these people the way He did.

Suddenly, we were drawn to the very people that wanted nothing to do with us.
It doesn’t make sense, but we spent the next ten years of our lives figuring out ways to reach these people for Jesus. It meant we had to say goodbye to the traditional worship styles we had always known. Some didn’t understand this, but to reach the unreachable you have to go way out on a limb sometimes. We had to dip into modern culture, and show these naysayers that God, the Bible, and being a Christ follower was relevant to their lives. Following Christ didn’t have to be kept as a museum piece that did not speak, in meaningful ways, to them. We needed to show them that even through their doubt, and even their hostility, God was still pursuing them relentlessly.

It affected the way we raised our kids.
People we would once have shied away from, we suddenly sought out. We began to see random people at the mall, in movie theaters, and restaurants as people who needed Jesus. We actually invited sinners to church, and did the happy dance when they showed up. Did they have blue hair and a few tattoos? Even better. We wanted to hear their stories, and they were so surprised to find a pastor who didn’t condemn them for their past, but offered them a future in Christ just the way they were. We were given eyes to see their potential as Christ followers; what they could be if they turned their lives over to Him. As I said, this affected our children too, especially our oldest. Rather than secluding himself with only Christian friends, he took risks on kids we called “underdogs”. While we cautioned him to make sure his closest friends were believers, we encouraged his investments in others who were not.

It’s ten years later, and we have ventured back home to the Buckle.
I am surprised by the culture shock it has been for our kids. On my son’s first day of high school here, when asked about the day, he mentioned that he hardly heard anyone at school using foul language. Unfortunately, that was commonplace in the high school he attended in Charlotte. It had been a challenge to be around it, and not participate in it.
Here, most of my kid’s new friends attend church at least some of the time. Kids here openly label themselves Christian on Facebook. My kids have heard teachers defend their faith in the classroom, and have heard kids praying on their own at school. A small cross sticker on the spine marks books by Christian authors in the public library in town. There is a church on every corner. It’s all very different for them, and it’s been interesting to see them adjust. They look around for kids who don’t know Jesus, and are having trouble finding anyone who doesn’t at least claim Christianity.

What they are finding is quite interesting.
Before, it was the non-Christian hostility or apathy they had come to know, and figure out how to overcome. Here, it is the other way around. They are finding that all this religion can sometimes breed a judgmental outlook. There is sometimes little grace afforded those unfortunate people whose sin becomes public. Growing up, I knew I had been given the gift of mercy, but even so, I was still a closet finger-pointer. I’d judge how well I was walking the Christian faith by how poorly I thought others were. I expected people to clean up their act, and come to Jesus, but God showed me that folks have to come to Him first. Our pastor in Charlotte used to say that if you are a jerk, and come to Christ, you are then a Christian Jerk. It takes time to clean up life lived apart from Him.

I loved growing up in the Bible belt, and I am so happy to be back.
The environment is wholesome and comfortable. I am enjoying watching my kids figure all this out. Church is a part of the culture here, but they are learning, perhaps better than ever, it isn’t about going to church or a list of do’s and don’ts. It’s about a relationship with Christ where His love for you is separate from the good or bad deeds you do. Your value in Christ is not found in whether or not you take up space at a local place of worship, but rather your value is found in Him alone. Perhaps that’s the message they should share now. It’s the message of grace, really. Showing that to extend grace is just as important as to receive it.

Red Letter Days

Granted… some people have more of them than others.
But we’ve all had them. Some wish for more of them. Interestingly enough, the term is from medieval times. It is actually a church term. Special church days or festivals were written on the calendar in red ink. The academic world picked up on the practice and professors at universities like Oxford and Cambridge wore red or “scarlet” robes on special days. (Thank you Google) Some calendars are still made with holidays in red.

Red print tends to get our attention. My teachers always seemed to correct my papers in red ink. That certainly got my attention.

Think back to your most significant red-letter days.
Mine? Getting braces on my teeth. Getting braces off my teeth. Driving my first car. Passing my nursing board exam. Getting engaged. Getting married. Sitting in the front yard of my first house, and thinking “my yard, my trees, my house”. Holding my babies for the first time… the list goes on. Red-letter days.

What if you could have a total life retro calendar with all of your red-letter days printed in, well, red? All the way back to your birth. That would, of course be in red. The day you learned to sit up. Red. The day you spoke your first word. Red. The day you discovered pistachio chocolate chip ice cream at Baskin Robbins. Red. You get it, right? Take a ride down memory lane for a moment, and recall your own red-letter days. Go on… it’ll be fun.

What if God had a red-letter day calendar for you?
Would He mark it in red the same as you did? I wonder. I am suspicious that He might not. We tend to think of red-letter days as some of the best days of our lives. Those were wonderful days, when something terrific happened to us. I think God might color those red, too, but I also think He might color some days red that we might not consider.
The day you were fired from your job. The day they walked out of your life for good. The day you missed out on the opportunity of a lifetime. The day you lost it all. The day, when in your brokenness, you cried out to Him in desperation, anger, frustration, or longing.

Why would God color those days red on your calendar?
Those are the days we would just rather forget; push to the nether regions of our memories. I think those are the days when God rubs his hands together, and gets to work on us. It’s those turning point days in our lives, the days when we are at the end of ourselves and our own abilities, that God accomplishes His best in us. I think those are the days God would mark as red on our calendars.

I’ve had some days that God might color red on my calendar this last year that I would not. I’ll bet you have, too. Makes me wonder what He’s up to. Our lives are sprinkled with both kinds of red-letter days: the celebratory, party throwing kind, and the hard, frustrating, teeth gnashing kind.

I think the most mature of Christ followers learns to appreciate, even celebrate, both. I won’t claim to be one of those… not yet. But the Apostle Paul set the example for the rest of us to follow. Paul certainly had red-letter days of both kinds, and yet he recognized that in those hardest of days God was at work, and that His plan was being fulfilled in him. Whether free or imprisoned Paul learned to be content, and to trust in the God that ordered his days.

A Planner or a Truster

When I was first asked to be a guest blogger for my wonderful friend, Stacey, my thoughts immediately started churning about what I would say. Should I write about an area in my life where I was successful – where there was little struggle? That would give me a pretty short list of topics from which to choose. So I thought I would share some thoughts on an area where I don’t always do so well.

You see, I am a planner.

I like to know how I will spend my day, week, month, season…you get the picture. I love to have people in my home, but I get “a little stressed” planning the specifics. What food will I fix? What if my guests don’t like chicken/beef/pork? What time should everyone arrive-not so early that I don’t have enough time to cook, but not so late that their babies are crying before we have even eaten. Somehow, I finally get every detail down pat. I allot the proper amount of time to clean before they get there. If everything goes “according to plan”, I will have the toilets clean, floors swept, and laundry done (because we ALL know guests immediately look to see if we have dirty laundry!) before my friends ring the doorbell. I coordinate the main dish and sides so everything (hopefully) comes out of the oven at the same time-piping hot and yummy (again, hopefully!).

It’s kind of exhausting to read, huh?

Imagine living like this. You would think I would finally relax and enjoy my time with friends once they arrive. I do…well, I try to relax anyway. I have been blessed with fantastic people in my life. However, I have a difficult time really enjoying my time with them because of this “need to plan”. I often have trouble enjoying the moment because I am always focused on the “next thing”. Once I have completed a project, or pulled off a dinner party, I start thinking about the decisions/plans I have to make for the next event.

I really don’t think my problem is that I am a planner though. I think my issue is I am often not a “truster”. I was reminded of that wonderful verse in Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.” Why do I worry whether “my plans” will work out like I have them pictured in my mind? God has plans that HE knows about that involve my life and His big picture for me. I need to just rest in Him and trust His plans will be in my best interest.

I tend to stress over many things-big and small.

I have always known I get anxious about things “more than the average bear”. It has really been highlighted to me lately. Some things I have faced in life would cause most people to have at least some anxiety. My oldest child was diagnosed with a brain tumor as an infant, had several surgeries, chemotherapy, and has struggled with seizures frequently. Those are some areas where my trust has been tested. I haven’t stopped at the big things though. I fret about whether people will decide to come to the new small group my husband and I are leading, about getting in carpool line in time so my child is not the last one picked up, about getting to the gym early enough to get a bike in the popular cycle class, about what to write in this blog…ARG!!!

I would imagine my Heavenly Father looks at me, and thinks something like I do when one of my children worries unnecessarily. When they are stressing out about something they shouldn’t, I say, “Don’t worry about that. I’m taking care of it.” Or, “That’s not anything you should even be worrying about.” Hmm…maybe I should take my own advice. I should at least take Paul’s advice in Philippians 4:6: “Do not be anxious about anything” or Peter’s advice in I Peter 5:7: “Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you.” Now, THAT sounds like a plan.

So… are you a planner or a truster?

No Greater Love

February 14th is the mandated day to express one’s feelings of love to another through the giving of gifts, cards, flowers, etc. Most smart men know that to let that day slip by unrecognized can lead to relationship disaster and days in the dog house. But the best gift of love I have ever been given came to me not on Valentine’s Day, but another, very different, day. It was not in a box of chocolates or roses. It was not summed up in a flowery poem with rhyming verses. It was in a simple, yet unforgettable, act.

Unexpectedly, on my yearly physical exam, my doctor discovered that my thyroid gland was enlarged. I told her I only came to see her for the stimulating conversation, and that I didn’t really expect her to actually find something wrong with me, and she should stop it right then. I smiled. She didn’t. Instead she sent me for an ultrasound of my throat. When the results came back not quite normal, she sent me for a biopsy. When that was also raising eyebrows from the medically trained, she referred me to a surgeon. It looked to be cancer, but they wouldn’t know for sure until they had the gland out and could slice and dice it under a microscope. Ouch. Literally. Ouch. A month later I was minus one thyroid gland. My only one. (You just have the one.)

Believe it or not, that’s when my gift came.

I was not expecting it. I wasn’t even hoping for it. I had no idea it was coming. The surgeon had said it would be several days before we would know for sure if my thyroid disease, if it indeed was cancer, would require further treatment to include radiation pills. But a mere two days after my surgery, the phone rang. I was not up to talking much so my husband, Matthew, answered the phone. I was resting upstairs when he hung up, and came bounding up the stairs. He was both smiling and crying at the same time. He grabbed my hand, pulled me up, and while he held my face in his hands he told me the good news. Yes, I had a bad thyroid, but it was not cancer. There would be no radiation pills, and I was done with the whole ordeal forever.

I was very happy, of course. Yet I realized as happy as I was, I was not as happy as my husband was. He was happier for me than I was for myself! I can honestly say, in that very moment, I have never felt more loved. I had just been given the best gift another person ever gave me. Sure, I was cancer free, but I was truly loved. What’s better than that? Nothing I could think of. Even being cancer free, as great as that is.

Love letters are sweet, and gifts are often pleasing.

But love in action and by demonstration is the best kind of love there is. The Bible says that our God enjoys giving good gifts to us. He gave us the best love letter ever written when He gave us the Bible, but the very best gift of love He ever gave was actually an act of love. It was in giving up His son, His only one, to restore our broken relationship with HIm. All we need do is sit up, let Him take us in His arms, and receive that gift so freely given. Then we should know that as happy as we are to have been given that gift, He is happier still.

Have you witnessed an act of love in your
own life? Can you share it here? Come on… make us all warm and fuzzy!

Life, Love, and Paper Garments

I wish everyone could meet my doctor.
As a nurse myself, I respect her education and experience. She is a talented doctor, but that is just one reason why I put my health in her hands. Equally important to addressing my few health issues are how much I enjoy talking with her about life, and about how well we are both aging. (We are the same age, and we look marvelous!) I guess that would go to her bedside manner. I would like to think that I’m something special, but I am sure she is just as pleasant to her other patients as she is to me.

I recently went for my yearly physical.

After weighing, ugh, tinkling in a cup, and stripping off my clothes only to don what I consider a glorified paper towel, I carefully heaved myself up onto the exam table to wait on her. “Carefully” because if you’ve ever had to model a paper towel yourself you know how easily they can tear. Have you ever tried looking dignified while wearing a paper towel? I’m not sure how she manages to keep a straight face when she walks into the exam room. I spent the next few minutes readjusting my covering to make sure no one got flashed when the door opened.

Straight faced, she breezes in and takes her place on the round, wheeled stool that all doctors seem to prefer. We review my health over the last year, and I convince her to put off the exam that is due on my lower half. “Let’s do that next time”, I say. From there, we jump to a very brief, but significant, discussion about marital fidelity. I try my best to convince her that I am perfectly comfortable in the knowledge that my husband is completely faithful to our marriage. Yet she is reluctant to take my word for it. She tells me that perhaps she is jaded. She’s just seen so much.

I sit there in my paper towel trying to figure out how, in the short time I have left on that table, I can convince her that I really am sure about my husband and why. I glance down, and find that I have ripped my towel. Great. I try a couple of one-liners, but she’s quick with a word or two herself. She’s a tough nut to crack. I begin to wonder why she is so jaded about marital fidelity. Reluctantly, I let the subject fall, and we move on.
But in my mind there are things I wish to say to my doctor about marriage, and keeping it secure and holy.

It’s what I believe marriage must be for it to survive. Holy. Holy means separate, or set apart. Both my husband and I have set ourselves apart from all others. We are separate together. But we are not naive. We know that for our marriage to remain holy we have to pay attention. We must be as sentries on guard for anyone who would defile what is now sacred, even if we are that “anyone”. We know that attacks on marriages come from within as much as from outside the relationship. That doesn’t mean we always get it right. Sometimes, if we are not careful, the confidence we have in our relationship becomes a liability.

I remember a time when my husband and I allowed an argument to go too far. We both said some things we didn’t mean and were sorry for. Later I asked him how could I let myself say those kinds of things to someone I love so much. (I thought the same thing about him, but reminded myself we had made it to the makeup stage, and didn’t want to go backward.) We were hugging at the time, so I heard his muffled voice say, “Because we are human. We make mistakes.”

We make some whoppers.

He’s right. We can be nasty. We are so confident in our commitment to each other that we allow ourselves to say things we wouldn’t otherwise. What’s so holy about that, then? Well, it’s the third part of the union that makes it holy, really. Because apart from God our marriage is nothing more than a ticking time bomb waiting to go off. We are two selfish people who mostly just want our own way. It’s only because of God’s involvement in our relationship that we are ever able to put the other’s needs and desires above our own.

Sitting there on the exam table, (Is there a draft in here?) I realize there is no way that I can, in the span of a few moments, even attempt to share with my doctor how I can possibly be so confident in my husband and our relationship without coming across as a dope in a torn paper garment. And as frustrating as that is, I have to smile to myself. Because even though I cannot convince her, I know it to be true.

We move on to discuss what roadmaps my legs are these days. Where did all of those little veins come from, anyway? I told her I am sure that if I could just get my hands on some hypertonic saline and a syringe I could fix those things myself. (Nurses are usually convinced they can fix anything.) To which my doctor slaps her hand to her forehead and says, “Please don’t tell me you’re going to ask me to write you a prescription for that!”
“Of course not”, I reply. Although

How do you keep your relationship to your spouse “holy”?

Church Shopping

Church shopping. It’s a little like church hopping, but not really.
Church hoppers are never truly interested in committing to any local body of believers. They want to leave their options open just in case another church starts a new program that might benefit them in a way their present church doesn’t. Church hoppers don’t like to settle into any one church for too long. Church shoppers are different. I know. I am one. Now. And I’d like to say unabashedly that it stinks. Usually I love shopping, but it’s not my choice to be a church shopper. How did I become one?
My husband has served in ministry for twenty years. In that time our family has always attended the church that provided his paycheck. Church shopping was not necessary. Even when we moved to a new town, it was for him to take a new church position. No shopping. But when you resign one church position, and move to a new town without a position to go to, poof! You’re a church shopper. Maybe you’ve moved, or decided for one reason or another that you should attend a different church, and found yourself in this position. If that’s the case, I am truly sorry.
My husband has spent years and years designing worship services that make people feel comfortable walking into, and then leaving feeling as though they have truly experienced something unique, and doing it with excellence. Now we are on the other side of things.
Now we are the ones walking in, and we notice everything. Are we welcomed warmly, but not overly so? Is it easy to figure out where to go and what to do? What do we think of the worship style or the pastor’s message? How well are they using media to grab the attention of this techno savvy generation? Are the children valued, and provided age appropriate teaching in a safe environment? What about the youth? Are they allowed to serve in meaningful ways there? Is the coffee flavored, and are the doughnuts fresh?
It’s a bit like shopping for a swimsuit.
There are a lot of areas that need attention. What seems to fit fine in some places leaves huge bulges in others. Tug one side down, and it exposes far too much flab somewhere else. I don’t like shopping for swimsuits any more than I like shopping for a church.
There are a plethora of churches to choose from. And the people in all of them are God’s people. There are small family type churches, larger more corporate type churches, and then there are the mega churches. There are more flavors of churches than flavors of ice cream Baskin Robbins ever served up.
So far the churches we agree with theologically seem to be stuck in a time warp stylistically. They have one foot planted in traditional worship, and the other reaching for contemporary, and they aren’t doing either one exceptionally well. I truly don’t mean to offend here, but I actually noticed one local church marquee advertising three different services each one offering a different worship style.
How can that possibly work? I’m thinking of the saying, “Jack of all trades, and master of none.“ When a church seeks to please everyone, no one is pleased. It’s called “No man’s land”. For the love of Pete, choose a style, and do it with excellence.
We have found a couple of churches whose worship is good. We are partial to full on, no holds barred, guitar driven, drum beating, toe tappin’, hand clappin’ worship. You can’t get too loud for us. We like to think heaven hears, stops, looks down, and gets their groove on, too.

We like to think heaven hears, stops, looks
down, and gets their groove on, too.

So far while the music has been pretty good at a couple of places, we don’t fall in line theologically, and when you are married to a theologically conservative seminary graduate, that’s a non-negotiable.
What all this shopping has done for us, other than thoroughly frustrate us, is it has given us a new appreciation for all those folks who once walked into our services looking for a church home. We can truly appreciate the awkwardness of not knowing really where to go or what to do. We can appreciate the questions about what a church believes, what the mission and vision is, and do they even know?
If you have a church home, count yourself blessed.
Don’t be a church hopper. Be committed to your part of the body, and be a vital part of it. Only leave if it is God calling you to go. If you are church shopping let me encourage you. I know how hard it is. I know that to stay the course until you find a church home is challenging. Committing to a local body of believers is a serious thing.
The local church is the way God is choosing to reach this dying world. If we are going to be a significant part of that, we can’t be shoppers forever.

The Way

Do you ever feel like you are in the way?

Moms like to talk about their kids. It doesn’t take long for our conversations to work around to our kids. We share in our children’s joys as if their joys were our own, and we are brought to our knees over their sorrows as if their sorrows were our own.

I have a friend who is in a unique position as a mom. Her kids are grown up and out from under. They are young adults out in the world. I used to think our maternal instincts would lessened to a degree at that point in the game, but those moms whose kids have flown from the nest know this is not the case. My friend’s unique position as a mom comes from the fact that her son, James, is blind. He developed a condition as he neared adulthood that caused him to slowly lose his sight. My friend had to watch her son’s visual world slowly fade into darkness knowing there was not one thing she could do about it.

There are remarkable aspects to my friend’s story about her son.

Against all odds, her son finished college, and with the aid of family and his humongous guide dog, he lives on his own. For a while his accomplishments brought him a small amount of local notoriety. It seemed that in spite of his disability, the road ahead of him would be paved with opportunity. But that was then. Now when I ask my friend how her son is fairing and what is going on in his life, she can only seem to shake her head and dab at the tears that come to her eyes. I can almost hear the breaking of her heart.

It just seems like every door of opportunity slams shut on him, one after another. For a while they were taking these setbacks in stride, believing that an open door was coming and would be held open for James. But lately I am afraid they are losing their grasp on the hope they held for his future. He depends on family for many things. James cannot drive, and so his family takes him where he needs to go. With tears in her eyes, she recently told me that her son feels he is in the way. Looking into her eyes, I knew that nothing could be farther from the truth.

I stood before my friend with not one word to say. I am rarely at a loss for words, but as hard as I tried no words of platitude would come. She is right. The situation stinks. All I could give her was a promise to continue to pray for her son.

As I turned and left my friend, the thought that stayed with me was that James felt in everyone’s way.

I know how I feel about things that get in my way. I am annoyed and frustrated by them. I can only imagine how it must feel to think you are what’s in the way. Yet the more I thought about those words, the more I began to wonder if James could use those hard words to his advantage. How could he turn being “in the way” into a positive? Of course, first, he would have to modify what he means by the phrase.

In New Testament times, being in “the Way” or a part of “the Way” could buy you a lot of trouble. If you were a follower of Christ you were part of the Way. That’s what Christians were called back then. Saul, before he was the great apostle Paul, was a persecutor of those who were a part of the Way, and many lost their lives by Saul’s hand. Jesus referred to Himself in John 14:6 as “the way”. The expression is adapted throughout the New Testament, where we read of “the way of salvation” (Acts 16:17), “the way of God” (Matt. 22:16; Acts 18:26), “the way of the Lord” (Acts 18:25), “the right ways of the Lord” (Acts 13:10), “the way of peace” (Luke 1:79; Rom. 3:17), “the way of truth” (2 Peter 2:2), and “the right way” (2 Peter 2:15).

Fast forward to today. We still use this word, “way”. You know what I mean. You say something unbelievable but true, and someone says, “No way!” To which you respond, “Way!” The word still means truth!

I understand that when James thinks of himself as being in the way, he is not thinking along the lines I’m considering. It is my wholehearted prayer that he soon will. Maybe standing in “the way” is exactly where God wants him. James faces challenges in life that I cannot fathom. Neither can I grasp the challenges that faced those early followers of the Way. All I can say is I am so eternally thankful that they did face those challenges. It is through their sacrifice and wild belief that I can stand as a full-fledged member of the Way today.

It is my prayer that James is always in the way. It is my hope that his life is given to standing in the way of unrighteousness and using the wonderful gifts God has given him to point others to the way of Christ. It’s not a fanciful life. There is precious little glitz or glamour. Standing in the way demands determination and a goodly amount of fortitude. It’s no place for sissies. But if we stand in the way wonderful, God sized, things begin to happen. It is James’ limitations that cause his feelings of being in the way. But it is through his (and our) limitations that God gets big. Our weaknesses do nothing to stall the Heavenly Father.

It is in our weakness that He is made strong, and our faith and usefulness to the Kingdom increases.

In what ways are you standing in
“the Way” in your own life?