First… the good. Better than good. It was life-giving. There were glimpses of the Book of Acts found in the year ahead and I clung to them as the American Church facade began to crumble around me. But, for this season, the Lord extended a gift so desperately needed: to see the Church the way it was intended to be.
Immediately upon my return to church, some in the staff were quick to plug me back into ministry. I was offered opportunities to step back into Children’s Ministry, Outreach, and Worship, but my request was simple: Give me a group of young women who want to learn more about Jesus. Looking back on it now, I have to laugh. The pastor I was talking to said, “Okay, you want to lead a small group.” Um… no. I wanted to lead a discipleship group.
Some might be tempted to say, “Well, isn’t that just a matter of semantics?” But, in reality it wasn’t. We had been in small groups for years: fellowship, food, topical book studies and bible studies, conversation. All of those things are perfectly fine. But, as I sat on that hard, wooden chair, uncomfortably shifting, both in my seat and in my mind, all I could hear was this same man’s voice from the Sunday morning announcements, “I know a lot of people are apprehensive about joining a small group, but it’s the best way to plug into the church, and don’t worry, it’s not an accountability group.”
I remember sitting in between my husband and one of my best friends, who consequently, had been in our small group for years. Instinctively, we both laughed at the thought of our small group NOT being an accountability group. WHAT IN THE WORLD?!?! And before anyone thinks that maybe he misspoke or was speaking in generalities. He wasn’t. Over the next year, this idea of small groups NOT being accountability groups was reiterated over and over. I once asked why accountability had such a negative connotation. The response: People get turned off by accountability. They find it offensive. He literally used the word offensive.
The truth is simple, to the world, the gospel of Jesus Christ is offensive. It tells us there is absolutely nothing we bring to the table. There is nothing we can do to make things right with God…. something that goes against every “Americanized sensibility” instilled in us sense birth. You can’t pull yourself up from the book-straps on this one. And the thought of not providing accountability flies in direct opposition to the Great Commission. Jesus calls us to make disciples… teaching them to observe all that he commanded. I don’t know about you, but the thought of teaching someone how to do something without having the ability to offer correction would make me an absolutely deplorable and ineffective teacher.
So, no… I had no desire to lead a small group. I was called to lead a discipleship group, where accountability would be a requisite, as well as a desire to dig deep into the Word of God and a commitment to attend the group… not flake out when “something better” comes along. The Lord was gracious in immediately bringing five young women into my life and over the next few months, that group would grow to 12. Twelve. As I sit here typing, it’s a little overwhelming to think about. From the very beginning of this journey, the Lord has been consistent in showing His presence, leading, and faithfulness. And with each of these occurrences, He has embolden me to speak the truth about the call on our lives… something that, ironically, has only offended people in the church.
We prayed about our decision to go to Rhode Island and we prayed about our decision to return back to Maine. We wanted to stay. I pleaded with God to let us call Riverside, Rhode Island our home. Roots started to take hold of the fertile ground and we desperately wanted them to grow deep. We prayed for Him to make a way: to sell our home in Maine, to help my husband find a job in Rhode Island or Massachusetts. But, He didn’t. And here’s the reality: We could have stayed anyway. We could have made it happen on our own. We saw God moving and we wanted to be a part of it. But, we also prayed a specific prayer at the beginning of this journey. The Lord didn’t answer that prayer, and our deepest desire was to be obedient, so we returned to Maine.
We mourned the return for weeks, but then something happened. My husband received a call from someone at the office of Maine’s Attorney General asking if he would consider taking a job… a job he didn’t apply for. This job would mean relocating and after having our house on the market for over a year, with not one single offer, we doubted the probability of that happening. Yet, after less than a week on the market, we got an offer. Almost like the Lord whispering, ever so softly in our ear, “I’ve called you back for a reason,” we knew this was the Lord and a new chapter in our story was about to unfold.
Despite knowing our return to Maine was part of His plan, we had a difficult time returning to the old rhythm of life, and with that, our old church. While we were gone, it increased in size by 300 people. We already had reservations about being a part of a large church before we left for Rhode Island, but at almost 1000 people, we began feeling a little claustrophobic. Yet, regardless of our apprehensions, it was home; our family was there. So, I did the only thing I knew how to do: Disciple.
The next year was the absolute hardest of my life… up to that point. (The subsequent years were FAR worse. Thankfully, I had no way of knowing that at the time. If I had, I might have walked away from the Church all together!) After watching the Holy Spirit at work in Rhode Island, coming back to our “reality” of church in Maine was hard. Over the next year, I would wrestle with the Lord, question the motives of man, and walk away from a church for reasons I never could have foreseen.
***A few things I want you to know before reading this post.
The second young woman I discipled while in Rhode Island is someone you’d never forget… and, honestly, you just wouldn’t want to. She is precious to our family, as is her son, who Jamie and I LOVE to pieces. He was truly the hardest person to say goodbye to when we left.
Like the other young woman I met with every week, she was so excited to grow in knowledge and showed a genuine excitement for her pursuit of Jesus. She also came prepared every week with more questions than I had answers, but together we wrestled through it with a lot of laughter. Until one day when she sat across from me at my kitchen table and told me she was gay.
You guys… I had no clue. Like… For. Real. I wish I had a video of that moment. I can’t imagine what my face looked like. It was clear the news was a surprise to me, which was also a surprise to her. She had actually been meeting with several leaders at our church to discuss the issue. These guys knew she was meeting with me, BUT NEVER TOLD ME ANYTHING! Should I be mad at them for not telling me or ecstatic they didn’t see this as some scandal needing swift action? She assumed they would have told me and I think that was a pretty fair assumption. But, for whatever reason, they didn’t. And, at the end of the day, it didn’t really matter. It did nothing to change the way I felt about her and it did nothing to change my interpretation of what the Bible says about engaging in homosexual relationships. And, ironically, I think this was the beautiful thing about what God was doing.
Here’s the truth: Up to this point, I had never formally discipled anyone. Another truth: I grew up in an EXTREMELY conservative church and the thought of someone who was gay wanting to learn about Jesus never would have crossed my mind. NEVER.
I remember sitting at my kitchen table wanting to ask her so many questions, yet fearful of completely scaring her off with my ignorance. I guess the confusion was written all over my face because she broke the silence with nervous laughter and the perfect summative statement: You had no clue. There has never been a truer statement and one I would be confronted with so many times over the next few years.
I continued to disciple her up until the time our family left Rhode Island and asked a dear friend to continue on the work we started. I never once deviated from what I believe the Bible teaches, but I also never wavered in my love for her. The week before I left, she asked me if I would baptize her. I actually had never been asked to do that before and, honestly, I had no reservations in doing it. She acknowledged what the Bible said and was willing to trust the Lord and the work He was doing in her life, no matter how difficult it was. I knew she loved Jesus and she had proven herself faithful in pursuing truth and wrestling through the difficult parts. But, once we returned home to Maine, I encountered a perspective that gave me great pause.
At this point, I had been in seminary for a while. In one of my classes, when asked about his stance on baptizing those who are gay, my professor gave a quick, negative response. His only exception was in situations where people renounce their way of life. Immediately, his answer seemed off to me. It seemed in direct opposition to the idea of NOT having to clean yourself up before approaching the foot of the cross. I remember sitting there thinking, “If someone struggles with anger, do we tell them they have to renounce it and never get angry again before we are willing to baptize them?” It seems like such a ludicrous requisite when the context changes, doesn’t it?
In the years since that moment, the Lord has had me on a journey. Full disclosure, it’s a journey I’ve tried to ignore for a while. But, for whatever reason, it’s an issue the Lord has laid upon my oldest child’s heart. Actually, He has pressed it so firmly on her heart that she has spent hours researching and writing, questioning and challenging. If I’m committed to discipling her well, that means I have take on that challenge with her.
I told you there will be no answers here today. We’re only scratching the surface. But, I will say my research is pushing me to study the Bible like never before. If there was ever a need for solid hermeneutics, this is it. And part of our journey this year will be diving into the deep end on this subject. You’re definitely invited to dive in with us, but we have one requirement in our house: ALWAYS truth IN love. If nothing else, in seminary I learned the importance of studying the depths of God’s Word. There’s much wisdom to be gleaned, even in the surface, check-the-box, daily devotional reading. But, the most profound, life-transforming truths are found in the tensions that so many ignore.
But, as far as my family is concerned, we’re done ignoring them.
I’ve been processing this post in my mind for over five years now. Just so you know… my headspace is not for the faint of heart. I’m a lover of systematic theology and live for the tension often times found in the collision of sound doctrine and consuming grace. I believe in willful obedience, but get a little nervous when a true desire for seeking righteousness becomes nothing more than hollowed-out, white-washed behavior modification. Today, I’m going to dive into the deep-end on this one… and give you a preview of what Searching for Jesus in America will be like once we hit the road.
When we were church planting in Rhode Island, I had the privilege of discipling two young women. I would meet with them about once a week, simply talking about Jesus while reading through the gospel of John. They had so many questions and I had so few answers, but if nothing else, during that season of life, I learned that being a good teacher of God’s Word meant being a better student of God’s Word. Every week, I walked away with more homework for myself than I actually gave to those women. But, I LOVED every minute of it… until the subject of sin, more accurately “right living” entered the picture.
One of the women was a divorced mom embarking on a new relationship with a man who had invited her to church. Both had been raised in the Catholic Church and knew basic tenants of the Christian faith, as well as the traditional liturgy of the Catholic faith, but the concept of living your entire life for Jesus offered a mixture of excitement, intrigue and dread… a 100% accurate assessment in my humble opinion! Each week she brought a list of questions about the passages of scriptures she was reading, but as the weeks progressed, she also started bringing a list of questions about her life that she wanted me to answer. Some of them were easy: What does quiet time look like? How do I create a reading plan? Others were more difficult: How do I discipline my kids? How do I talk to family that doesn’t support my faith? And then there were some that didn’t sit right with me from the moment they left her lips: Can I still live with my boyfriend? Can I still watch certain movies and listen to certain music?
During the next few weeks, I notice a substantial lack of zeal and enthusiasm in our conversations. When pressed, she initially shrugged it off, but after some persistence on my part she shared what was bothering her. You see, while I was meeting with her every week, her boyfriend was also meeting with someone from the church. In their conversations, it was revealed that the two of them were living together. Her boyfriend was told that if they were going to take their faith seriously, then someone needed to move out… or they needed to get married. There are two things I still remember about that moment to this day: #1 How distraught this woman was; #2 How much I wanted to vomit in that moment.
I began to have flashbacks. Once I had a pastor list off a slew of musicians, many with cds taking up residence in my car, only to inform the congregation of our need to throw them away and repent for our vile taste in ungodly music. (Sorry, pastor, but The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill will NEVER see my trash can and the suggestion of such borders on insanity in my book!) Or there was the time I found myself facing the daunting reality of an unplanned pregnancy… and then asked to leave the church because I obviously wasn’t serious about my faith. Or the time two pastors’ wives told my friend that those who are “truly” saved pray in tongues… they also told her that if someone’s faith is real then they would never get cancer. I could go on… unfortunately. False doctrine is a real thing. But, in this particular situation, we were dealing with something else, something not so “black and white” (And just so you know… I laughed out loud when I typed that last statement. The Church has more “shades of grey” than the women in their congregations with books touting the same title… which, ironically, reinforces the point I’m trying to make!)
The concepts of obedience and behavior modification have always been melded together in my brain. I’ve heard people use them interchangeably. I’ve heard some say obedience is about teaching someone to do something and behavior modification is about teaching them NOT to do something. I’m sure there are dissertations written about the subject. But, for the sake of this post, here’s where I’m landing: Obedience is about choosing righteousness when our heart wants otherwise. It’s about trusting God’s best for us, even when we don’t want to. Behavior modification is about changing our behaviors in hopes of obtaining a desired outcome. I think about my kids acting all nice to one another so they can get ice cream for dessert, but once the bowl is licked clean, the boxing gloves are back on. With obedience, we have to deal with the heart…. maybe we could say obedience is behavior modification paired with a heavy amount of hope and prayer for the Lord to change our hearts in the waiting. It sounds good in theory, right? But what about in practice?
I remember sitting in front of those “ungodly” cds, staring at my adolescents, wondering what was so bad about a teenaged boy band or an R and B artist whose passion for social justice challenged my own set of beliefs. I remember looking through the music and coming to a very important conclusion: I could throw out the music, but it would cause me to become resentful. Why? Because I was modifying my behavior to please a pastor… not because I WANTED to please Jesus. I would’ve been reacting to another man’s conviction and not my own. I remember sitting on my floor and asking the Lord to change my heart and to convict me of my sin… if He didn’t want me to listen to this music (to read that book, to watch these shows), then I wanted Him to open my eyes to why. And guess what? He did.
I shared my experience with the woman and she left hopeful. But, unfortunately, the couple eventually left the church. I know her boyfriend didn’t receive the same advice. I know the weight of feeling like she couldn’t live up to the expectations of others was too much to bear… even if the expectation was only in her mind. I know I should have done more to advocate for her. I should have advocated for grace. There aren’t too many things I regret doing over the past six years, but this is one of them. I fight for truth, but I also need to staunchly advocate for grace… and pray for God to soften hearts and open eyes. Mine included. I’m quick to remind myself that we all fall short (Rom. 3:23), and that telling someone to “fix” their sin is so easy when it’s not something I battle. We need to push one another on to good works, but we also need to love one another well and pray for the conviction of the Holy Spirit to rest on all of us as we live out our testimonies in this world. (And just for the record… I still own The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Now and FOREVER!)
I could probably write an entire book about our six month experience in church planting… from a perspective few have shared. Jamie and I weren’t staff; the church planting lingo would refer to us as part of the “core team,” or “leadership team.” This translated to being full-time volunteers. On the weekends, we focused on K-5 programming and during the week, I helped with childcare at the church building for staff and new families. I also met with women during the week, teaching them about the tenets of the Christian faith. I look back on the time with such sweet fondness. During that season, I learned about the importance of discipleship, the need for ministries supporting single parents, and how easy it is to let the “business” of church completely suffocate the work of the Holy Spirit. Despite our earnest desire to live out the Acts Church, our naiveté would eventually, over the next two years, come to head-on collisions with several manifestations of the Western Church… aka: the Modern Institution of 501(c)3 Church, or what I like to refer to as the “Business Model Church.”
So, before I go any further, I want to say this: I LOVE the Church. LOVE IT. I run the risk of sounding hyper-critical and judgmental when I voice my frustrations, definitely not a reflection of my heart. It also becomes increasingly easy for others to become acutely sensitive to comments, critiques, and criticisms when they are hardly buffered with equal amounts of encouragement and almost completely void of grace. I would soon become painfully aware how easy it was for leadership to avoid accountability by accusing others of being divisive, or my personal favorite, “refusing to submit to authority.” But, as I started taking classes in seminary, I quickly began to see that so many of my “issues” with the Church weren’t just mine. I also began to appreciate that wasting time and energy on placing blame for the current state of the Church in America was neither fruitful, nor healthy. (I wish I figured that one out sooner!) But, neither is ignoring the problem(s). So we find ourselves at an impasse as we try to answer an extremely important question:
Well… I don’t have an easy, definitive answer to that questions, but I think the first step is all about sticking to the basics: discipleship. Ironically, writing this in 2019, over five years removed from our time in Rhode Island, discipleship has become a focal point in many Christian circles. But, that wasn’t the case prior to our church planting days. And, unfortunately, that was never a part of my upbringing in the church. I knew how to show up on Sunday (and Wednesday nights), how to serve, and how to read my Bible. But, ask me to teach someone else about the Bible… ANYTHING in the Bible…. forget it. I had absolutely no idea where to start, which led me on one of the greatest adventures of my life: seminary.
Interestingly, our pastor gives this pronouncement to the congregation every couple of months: You don’t need a seminary degree to do this thing. In theory, that might be true. But, in my case… I DID have to go to seminary because no one in my life could teach me how to study my Bible and I had absolutely no idea how to teach myself. Another interesting fact: osmosis isn’t the greatest method of Bible study. Sure… I was able to remember most of the 10 Commandments, differentiate between Noah, Moses, and David, and explain some elementary elements of the gospel. But, no way in the world could I walk someone through grace, sanctification, and a life surrendered to Jesus, something I was now expected to do. And, I would soon confront these crucial principles in my own growth and faith as a believer… because I was about to confront the obstacle of sin in the lives of others.
Returning home, after my mom’s passing, marked a turning point in our lives. After months of wrestling with God and ourselves, we decided to take the step of faith and help plant the church in Rhode Island. Logistically, we faced a handful of challenges, but nothing we felt disqualified us from the calling. However, we soon learned the elders at our church didn’t share our same enthusiasm.
We asked for a meeting to discuss our family helping with the church plant. In our minds, everything made sense: We would put our house, in Maine, on the market and Jamie would start looking for employment in Eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island. In the meantime, the kids and I would relocate to Rhode Island full-time, temporarily renting a house, while Jamie traveled back and forth on the weekends. If God wanted us to stay, we would sell the house and Jamie would find a job. If not, the kids and I would return after the six months.
We knew this wasn’t ideal. In a “perfect” world, all the pieces would fall into place… the house, the job. The six of us would get to be together. But ascertaining perfection was never our goal. Our hearts longed for truth; we yearned to experience Jesus, an opportunity to walk by faith and not by sight… something we would come to realize was GREATLY missing in our “church” lives. As we sat in the room, surrounded by the elders, I remember them becoming visibly uncomfortable as we shared the plan we felt the Lord laid on our hearts.
Financially, none of it made sense. With the passing of my mom, we inherited her house… and mortgage payment. Until we could sale her home, moving to Rhode Island essentially meant taking on three house payments. (And we were already living paycheck to paycheck.) Additionally, Jamie’s commuting back and forth meant he would arrive late on Friday nights (Driving through Boston is never ideal… but rush hour on Friday is a nightmare!), and leaving at 4:30 on Monday mornings.
The elders worried about the financial toll, but more so, they worried about the strain our family would endure due to the distance. As we sat in the room, I felt the walls starting to close in. Each of the elders refused to look us in the eyes. Some stared at the floor and others stared off as if in deep contemplation. (Were they waiting to hear from the Lord, hoping another elder would speak up, or thinking about their to-do list for the following day?) The longer we sat in silence, the more frustrated I became.
Eventually, our pastor broke the silence stating, “I think… if this is truly of God… He will sale your house and provide the job. I don’t see how separating your family is God’s will.” But, what another elder said next delivered the final, crushing blow. He told us that financial hardship and prolonged separation were the leading causes of divorce in the church and followed up with this question: “You’re asking for both of those if you do this. How is that God’s will?”
Not once did they ask WHY we felt God’s will would place distance and financial hardship in our path. Not once did they ask how we arrived at the decision. Not once did they ask if we had prayed over, or received wise counsel for, our decision. Not once did they use scripture to back up their counsel. Not once did they ask us to use scripture to support our decision. (And there are PLENTY of scriptures about suffering, giving up possessions, and sacrificial living to cover all those bases for us!) We left that meeting questioning God, but THANKFULLY, His voice was louder than theirs.
Long story made incredibly short, we proceeded with the plan. It WAS hard. It DID financially drain our accounts. We DID suffer from the weekly separations. BUT, IT WAS THE BEST SEASON OF OUR LIVES. God was faithful in His provision… but not in our finances or in selling our home. He was faithful in showing me that my husband was an idol. He gave me a heart for single moms because I faced the role Monday through Friday. (Not even a comparison to what single parents face!) He was faithful in giving my husband quiet time to spend with Him during the week. He was faithful in showing us how to spend quality time as a family during those weekends together. He was faithful… and we would have missed it had we taken the advice of the elders. Looking back, it’s so easy to see that worldly wisdom and common sense dictated their counsel. It took a deeper faith to overcome that… and I’m so grateful the Lord gave it to us.
Looking back on it now, the Lord threw us a life-preserver with the invitation to “plant” a church in Rhode Island. We knew absolutely nothing about church planting, but desperate times called for desperate measures. All this young pastor really knew about us was that we had four kids and spent a lot of time serving the church; he didn’t know about the crossroads we found ourselves in. He didn’t know how close we came from walking away from the church… or how we saw this invitation as our “last chance.”
But, there was a catch: Our current situation made relocation to Rhode Island extremely difficult. We had a house to sell and my husband needed to find a job. So a “for sale” sign went up in the yard and resumes started going out as we prayed for God to make it clear if we should go. For months, we prayed and dreamed about the possibility of being a part of this new beginning. We talked about how easy the decision would be if we won the lottery (of course, you have to actually PLAY the lottery to WIN the lottery!). But, at the time, the fleece seemed obvious: If we sell the house and find a job, then we go. If we don’t, we stay. Pretty straight forward. Our finances limited us from going on our own, so if God “wanted” us to go, He would sell our house and provide the job. That’s how it works, right? Well… not necessarily.
During Thanksgiving, we found out my mom had terminal cancer with only weeks to live. My husband took a leave of absence from work and we headed down south to take care of her those last six weeks. I won’t belabor the point, but seeing death… all the horrible effects of cancer on the human body… you gain perspective and appreciation for life. Both of my parents lived for retirement… neither one of them lived long enough to see it. (That alone was a wake up call.)
The night after she passed away, my husband and I began contemplating life. We asked the typical questions I feel many ask when facing similar situations. Are we spending our time (our lives) on the things that truly matter? Will we wake up one day regretting our decisions in life? And then my husband said something unexpected: If we wanted to go to Rhode Island, we now had the money to do it. For a brief moment I got excited. My mom’s final gift to our family would be the chance to seek after the only thing that truly matters; but as quickly as the excitement rushed in, the skepticism and cynicism fought back. My response,
As soon as the words escaped my lips, the conviction strangled me. I felt like throwing up as this horrific, guttural sound came from my mouth. In that moment, I let the world override the Holy Spirit. I chose “sensibility” over righteousness, a high-yield interest rate over a priceless, eternal investment. If I was truly living my life on mission… living out the Great Commission… then there was no greater way to spend ANY money. We stayed up for hours that night talking about how crazy (and financially irresponsible) it would be to use that money to move when God still seemed to be so silent in the details. I remember sitting in my mom’s living room and saying, “I feel like we’re just suppose to go for 6 months. In faith, I feel like we’re suppose to go and that He will be faithful.”
The next morning, we went to my mom’s church. This place was like Disney World for Christians. For real. The greeters in the parking lot wore those over-sized Mickey hands and perm-a-grin smiles as we wound our car around the seemingly endless rows of parking spaces. (This place also has a slide on the second floor for kids to ride down at the end of church. I’m pretty sure I saw something like that on Babylon Bee once… but this one actually exists.) There were three things I clearly remember about that service: #1 The house lights were turned off in the sanctuary and without the help of the usher AND HIS MINI FLASHLIGHT we never would have found a seat… but maybe the stage lights bouncing off the fog pouring out of the fog machines would have provided enough illumination; #2 It was the first and (PLEASE, LORD JESUS) the last time I will ever hear Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer” being sung in church; and #3 being the first Sunday of the New Year, it was Tithe Challenge Sunday… commit to giving the church 10% of your income for 6 months and they guarantee you will see the blessings of the Lord, or your money will be given back. (No. Words.) Confession: we only continued to sit through that service because we wanted to see how bad it would get.
At some point in the ramblings about the Tithe Challenge, the pastor said, “Someone here has been praying about this and needs to hear it: You need to be faithful for 6 months and trust that your Father will be faithful. Yep. I opened my eyes as wide as I could and slowly turned my head to look at my husband. He kept his eyes on the pastor, but the smirk on this face told me that he understood what happened: We prayed. God spoke. And now we had to answer.