To Stay and to Go: The Aim of Relationships

Lifestyle videos. Viral Instagram feeds. Mom blogs. Pinterest inspo. We consume an incredible amount of imagery and content that tells us what our lives are supposed to look like. From pinning a photo of a model in a messy bun holding hands with her fashionable beau, to liking a post announcing a friend’s engagement, to staring at lifestyle videos with Kygo playing in the background as bikini-clad babes and their boyfriends jump into the ocean- it’s subliminally simple to become obsessed with an image of “positive” relationships.

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Slowly but surely this forms what we think our day-to-day relationships are supposed to look like. I begin to form expectations that my romantic partner should be fashionable but not arrogant, adoring but not needy, chiseled but not a model, well-off but not greedy, and chill but not lazy. I begin to form expectations that my friends should be beautiful but not discouragingly so, cool but not exclusive, influencers but not out of my league, and should always be ready to take candid pics of me. Right?

When I look back at the times I connected the most to people in my life, I find that those moments are not necessarily Instagram-able. It was the nights that I spent pouring my heart out and weeping in my best friend’s bedroom as she read the Bible over me that actually made that friendship great. It was the look of kindness in my partner’s eyes as I blabbed about all the things I was stressing about that said “Hey love- you don’t need to worry right now” that stepped me back to the Lord’s presence. It was the times that I confessed my deepest mistakes to my mentors that set me free. But instead of trying to pursue these kinds of moments, I am concerned about what coffee shop we’re going to, what we’re wearing, what drink I should order, and what photos we can take.

Solomon’s wisdom tells us in Proverbs 18:24, “Some friendships don’t last for long, but there is one loving friend who is joined to your heart closer than any other!” (TPT) A lot of the relationships we foster don’t actually dig that deep. People will give a couple of seconds to look at your Instagram post only to toss a like and keep scrolling. Our online image has a surprisingly short impact on the people interacting with us. It is so easy for someone we know to be on to the next post, the next article, the next story, and the next text. And in person, I have plenty of cool, talented, and influential people and artists that I am friends with- but it actually comes down to who gives me the time of day.

The Holy Spirit is the ultimate example of what a friend or relationship should feel like. Not in a “Jesus is my boyfriend” kind of way that completely throws away the possibility of rich interpersonal relationships. But that the Holy Spirit is intensely loving. The Holy Spirit rides alongside, it doesn’t desert, it sticks close. The Holy Spirit hears and detects every unhinging, breaking, and failing in your heart. The Holy Spirit deeply knows all the parts of your mind that no other human will ever know about for the rest of your life. Because of this, we know what to look for in the people we choose to surround ourselves with.

Instead of people who only love themselves, we should be around people who love outwardly. Instead of people who only stay with you when you’re doing well (or when you’re not doing well so they can feel better about themselves), we should be around people who stick to your side no matter the season you are walking through. Instead of people who are flighty, we should be around people who are grounded in the love of Christ. We need people in our lives who will not be lifted away by every passing breeze of self-fulfilling fancy.

Luckily God promises us not only His fulfilling presence, but He promises us community of people to point us to Himself. God speaks to the people of Israel in Jeremiah and says, “Return… for I am your Master. I will take you… and I will bring you to Zion. And I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding” (verses 14-15). God has the authority to give and to take away, and this goes for relationships too. God will provide people who have the grace to guide your heart to fields of goodness, mercy, and grace. The deepest burning desire of God is to get you closer to His heart, so you can bet that He will place people in your life to do so! And at the end of verse 15, God gets more specific with what kind of people these relationships are: people who support others with knowledge and understanding.

Considering this, a great filter for friendships and relationships is utilizing these two points. Do the people in your life know God? Are they taking action to know God even more? Are they helping you to know God more? This isn’t about finding the most book-smart theologians to be friends with. This is about how the more one knows God, the more they love Him. And the more they love God, the more they know Him. It’s a cycle of growing, a trajectory of gaining the truth of God. If this cycle is broken, if the trajectory is lacking, this friend, boyfriend, or girlfriend may just be broken in their heart and may be lacking a revelation of God.

Not only is knowledge valuable in relationship, but understanding is equally essential. If a doctor is knowledgable about a simple disease but does not understand how to cure it, that doctor is not helpful to the diseased. If a person in your life is very knowledgable about how you need God, but does not understand how to help you get closer to Him, all they offer is speculation and judgement. The fruit of the knowledge of God is the love it takes to impart that knowledge to others. This application of relationship is the hardest to get right; actually having understanding for others is so much more difficult than just knowing what’s wrong with others’ walks with God.

The relationships in our lives may never completely nail the balance of knowledge and understanding 100%. And perhaps this balance will fluctuate. But discerning the people around us and seeing what directions they are pointing us in is crucial to who we will eventually become. As Proverbs 13:20 says, “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.” If we walk with people who know God and have understanding for others, we can also learn to grow in knowing God and understanding others too.


To stay and to go. Relationships are an ebb and flow of a tide constantly shifting through seasons and levels of depth. It is promised that God will provide people who will point you to Him. God’s heart is absolutely so desperate to have yours close to Him that he will place people in your life to challenge you, love you, question you, advise you, and be there for you in your walk with God. He did not promise us in His word that our relationships would be glamorous. Our relationships are not promised to be impressive to others, Instagram-able, or to offer us prestige or popularity. But they are there to be a sweet, sweet sound to God’s ears when we discuss His heart with each other. Our relationship break-throughs are there to sometimes go unseen and unheard by others, but cherished and valued by each other and by God. Our relationships may never feed our pride or hunger for fame, but they can point us to the God who fulfills our need for love and kindness.

An Open Letter to all the Abrasive People Like Me

What I’m about to launch into is a raw look into how people regard themselves. Deep down, we see ourselves through a lens shaped by our pasts, people in our lives, and our culture. The goal is to change that lens out for the one Jesus provides, and that process can look unique to everyone. Essentially, a way to start is to simply ask, “How do I see myself?” and in that honesty, truths about what you really believe about God begin to emerge. I’ve asked myself this, and some really gnarly things started to crawl out of my heart. But I’m glad they’re getting out of there to make some room for all God has or me.

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Self-criticism can take a lot of forms for me. Sometimes it disguises itself as humility- I comfort myself that at least I’m not one of those people who can’t even see their weaknesses. I see my weakness, I call them by their names. But occasionally I fall in love with my weaknesses and try to romance them into doing whatever I want them to be. I lust for self-actualization and pride myself in realism. I end up identifying myself as my weaknesses, then I criticize myself. This form of self-criticism is raw, it’s nasty, it makes me feel disgusting, because it tells me I’m not the Christian I should be. Then there is a self-criticism that is like a constant wave- a daily, subliminal beating like the ocean against a rocky shore- grinding my stoney resilience down to a smooth nothing.

On a constant daily basis, my thoughts revolve around the idea that I am really not well-liked. People must be forcing themselves to interact with me, they must be anticipating the moment they get to break away from me and go talk to the people they really like. I’m not one of those smiley ladies who giggle and laugh at every hello. I occasionally suffer from RBF (if you don’t happen to know what that is, Urban Dictionary is a great resource). I don’t always smile when people talk to me, or I don’t feel like I know when is the right time to laugh or comment in a conversation. My tone can be negative, my comments can be random or awkward, and I don’t talk ”cool”.

From noticing all this in myself and having a deep desire to change, I usually just end up despising myself on the inside. “Why am I not likable?” “Why aren’t I one of those spiritual, kind, cool people?” “Why does my face always look like that?” “Why was I so awkward?” “Why can’t I just be happy?” This becomes a cyclical narrative in my heart. So I put my efforts to becoming likable, acting more “spiritual”, teaching myself how to be kind, being more aware of the messages my expressions are sending, and acting like I’m happy. But this will never be enough.

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We can live in a very emotionally intense culture that tells us to work on ourselves, to fix our own problems, to pull ourselves up by our emotional bootstraps. We live in an “empowerment” culture that preaches that you, and only you, can do the things that will make you successful, happy, or even emotionally stable. There are myriads of podcasts, books, Ted Talks, and Instagram accounts to instruct and inspire us how to live our best lives. This same culture will shame you when your own decision-making pushes you to interfere with anyone else’s self-actualization or step beyond the bounds of what is acceptable, but ultimately, “You do you, boo!”

Where is the line drawn between self-responsibility and self-criticism? We are to take responsibility for ourselves and what we do- only us, as individuals, can control our decisions and there is incredible power over what we tell ourselves and how we treat ourselves. On the flip-side, when the weight of criticism is damaging to the ability to participate fully and meaningfully in the life around us, this self-awareness and examination is not actually enhancing our lives at all. Luckily Jesus gives us the perfect third option to crushing self-responsibility and self-criticism:

“Loving me empowers you to obey my commands. And I will ask the Father and he will give you… the Holy Spirit of Truth, who will be to you a friend just like me—and he will never leave you. The world won’t receive him because they can’t see him or know him. But you know him intimately because he remains with you and will live inside you.” -John 14, 15-17 TPT

Here’s the new formula that Jesus lays out: Loving God + Holy Spirit Help = Doing what’s Right. To those who have grown up hearing about “loving God” and choosing the right moral path, this is a big DUH. But let’s look at the formula life and culture lays out for us: Loving Self + Doing what’s Right = Good Life. How culture sets this up is if you are self-actualized (Maslow’s top hierarchy of needs), and you just be a good person, your life will end up being good because you’re doing good. Which in contrast, sets up an equal opposite: if you never fully realize your own self, and you aren’t a good person (the definition of a “good person” is very arguable), your life will end up being not good because you’re not doing good.

Taking the semantics out of this, culture’s formula for life ends up contradicting itself in not-good people leading seemingly “good” lives. We get stuck in a pursuit of self-actualization (and being acutely aware of all our flaws) and teaching ourselves to do “good” things so we can lead a life full of the goodness we want. So all the pressure lies on the individual if their life is good or not. If your life isn’t good- you must be doing something wrong, right? Then we criticize ourselves for not being good enough, and on and on it goes.

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So here is where I address all the people like me. If you are dominant, if you don’t feel likable, if you feel abrasive to those around you, if you don’t feel accepted, if you just feel like something must be wrong with you: Jesus is here to rewrite how we judge what is good and acceptable. The pursuit of self-criticism leads to false truths about yourself and inherent loneliness. But the pursuit of Jesus leads to life-giving truth and the instant knowledge that you are not by yourself in this.

As simple as it is, if we just love Jesus, he will give us what it takes to do the good he has called us to. He won’t be waiting up in heaven for us to complete a divine list of good tasks, he bends down to give us a daily friend to stick with us and tell us when to turn right and left in this path to goodness. The Holy Spirit won’t just up and leave us if we are on an absolute spree of wrongdoing. I know I’ve struggled with this truth when church culture emphasizes leaders who “have the Holy Spirit in them” because they get a congregation riled up about God emotionally. But let’s get this straight: the Holy Spirit is still in you even when people aren’t having an emotional response to your speaking, your worship, or your actions. The Holy Spirit is still in you even when you are not acting like a “good” or “spiritual” person.

We can have a gloriously intimate and healthy relationship with Jesus in the middle of our inclination to wrongdoing. Does this mean that Jesus enables us to keep living in the wrong? No- because by Jesus’ nature, an incredible phenomenon starts to occur. The more time we spend with him, the less we desire to do wrong. While we still may commit wrongs, our trajectory is no longer placed in our wrongdoing, but in Jesus’ righteousness. In non-church-talk, even when we keep doing all the things we criticize ourselves for, those things are not the end of the story. Our focus no longer needs to be in self-criticism, but just in getting our selves next to Jesus where his right-ness and his goodness can seep into us.

For me, this means that I will embark on a life-long re-wiring of the way that my mind reaches “Doing what’s Right”. Day by day, the cyclical thoughts obsessing in criticism towards myself can be re-routed to start thinking about Jesus. Little by little, my rage, my negativity, my lack of confidence, my awkwardness, my lack of warmth will be replaced by Jesus’ peace, positivity, confidence, kindness, and light. When in moments I doubt if this will ever happen, I can cling to the knowledge that it already is- I can be sure that Jesus has already been working the relinquish me of the crushing weight of my own self. He’s slowly replacing me with every good part of himself.

"Ours" Not "Mine"

The ego is such a delicate thing, isn't it? Recently, mine was deflated when I was told to head a project at work and when all the critiques were hurled back at me and the deliverables were made under the weight of strict guidelines, the project was rejected for not being good enough. Not being good enough? I didn't put this weight of guidelines on my back, did I? In the middle of my incredulous protest and agape frustrations, the Holy Spirit whispered through my dejection and gave me a reality that is very hard to face. 

I am working under authority.

Really, it's a simple phrase but it relates to all the areas of our life, not just our performance-based areas. And through the Holy Spirit, I realized that it was my job to take the weight of guidelines and critique (helpful and harmful to my result) and under it produce great work. Even when I am instructed to do something that I don't see as helpful, it is my job to take that instruction and turn it into something even better than before (instead of just ignoring it in entirety). 

There was a time when someone gave me a chance and hired me in the first place. There was a time that I wasn't given this amount of responsibility. But authority decided to give me a job, give me responsibility, and now I am to respond to and listen to that authority. So let's take this concept to Church.

Serving and being in the Church is definitely a unique concept because in a traditional setting, there are people on staff (smaller in number, usually in leadership) and there are volunteers (larger in number, and usually report to staff) instead of a corporate organization where most everyone is paid. So at Church, a lot of people are doing this for free. Many of Sunday Services around the world are done by people giving up their time and resources to feed into the local hope of Christ with no monetary reward. 

So- what is our reward?  

I believe this question reveals a lot of the heart of why people serve at Church, and why people serve Jesus at all. If the desired reward is to be heard, seen, and praised, then the tendency is to ignore authority. Why? Because if you do something under authority, it is no longer "yours", it becomes "theirs" or- in the context of the Church, "ours". This means that the worship song you lead or wrote is no longer "your" worship song, it becomes the praise of the Church to raise back up to God and not to you. This means that the photo you took or the church promo post you created is no longer "yours", it becomes the image of the Church to invite people to God and not to you. This means that the small group you lead is no longer "yours", it becomes the gathering of the Church to bring people together to experience God's heart and not yours. 

Being under authority means that people aren't always seeing what we do behind the scenes. Being under authority means that people don't always hear about what we did to make something happen. Being under authority means that people won't praise our name, even if we had a big part in doing something great for Jesus. Because the reward is not to be seen, heard, or praised. 

"The fire will test and prove the workmanship of each builder. If his work stands the test of fire, he will be rewarded. If his work in consumed by the fire, he will suffer great loss" -1 Corinthians 3:13b-15a TPT

When we are serving in the Church and we come under fire, whether it be about our musical, creative, administrative, leadership, or technical abilities, it definitely feels like a slap in the face. Especially if you're doing this thing for free out of the kindness of your heart! But 1 Corinthians reveals that fire tests our work and toil. If we can stand through the fire of authority (good or bad), the fire of criticism, the fire of not getting picked, we can be truly rewarded. But if we completely go against authority, if we ignore all criticism, if we lash out because we weren't picked to do what we wanted, we're actually losing out on what Church is really supposed to be about. 

"For it was only through this wonderful grace that we believed in him. Nothing we did could ever earn this salvation, for it was the gracious gift of God that brought us to Christ! So no one will ever be able to boast, for salvation is never a reward for good works or human striving." -Ephesians 2: 8-9 TPT

It is only by Jesus' grace that we can receive the Holy Spirit to believe in him in the first place and it's only by his grace that we get to be a part of his family. There's no work we can do, no worship song we can sing, no creative thing we can form, nothing we can lead, that could earn us the right to be a part of God's saved kingdom. God's pretty gracious to have picked us at all to bring us to Christ. Our reward for serving the Church is to see of and hear the salvation of and praise Jesus. It's basic. It's foundational. God is not out to make sure our church experience is us receiving everyone's gaze. God is not out to make sure our church experience is us being heard by all. God is not out to make sure our church experience is us getting the accolades and praise and attention that belongs rightly to Him. 

Under authority, our ability to brag is stripped away. And to be real, that hurts. But luckily we get to get healed of ourselves. Our sweat and straining and tears can be healed under the shadow of the wings of God's authority. Our striving and frustration and pushing can be healed and we can find rest under the protection of His command. The tension in the muscles of our performance mindset can relax. The tearing of our working mind can be mended. The restlessness of our hunger for praise can be satiated and fed not by men's compliments, but by God's graceful kindness. 

The ego is delicate, but God's authority is so much stronger. I praise Jesus that he is carving out of me the rebellion that would tear me limb to limb spiritually. When I am critiqued and under the weight of authority, I am being refined under a helpful fire. And through this, I am always deemed enough in Christ. My success is not "mine", but for the glory of "us" to share to find God, not others to find me. In the middle of my incredulous protest and agape frustrations, the Holy Spirit whispers through my dejection and gives me a stunning reality that is gentler, kinder, and is ultimately about his salvation as my reward. 

 

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Peace is a Promise He Keeps: a Word to Anxiety

With the arrival of Hillsong Young and Free's new album, III, we're getting a refresh of their hit single from last winter, Peace. So far, Amanda Cook has led the song in Bethel's school of worship, and the words, prayers, and lyrics that went into the song speaks to something deeply rooted in this generation:

Anxiety.

As the words of the song go, "There's a peace far beyond all understanding // May it ever set my heart at ease // What anxiety fails to remember is peace is a promise You keep." This is a direct reference to Philippians 4:7 that says "And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" (ESV). In Psalm 29:11, there is a promise of peace saying, "The LORD gives strength to his people; the LORD blesses his people with peace." Isaiah 54:10 asserts this, "'Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,' says the LORD, who has compassion on you." 

It's easy to read these words and think that it's cool that God promises peace, but what does peace actually look like in our daily lives? We often define peace by how we've watched other people experience peace. A friend of mine wakes up at 6 in the morning every day to pray. Another friend keeps and tends to house plants- and as she waters each one, she prays for her friends who don't know Christ yet to come to know Him. It's easy to envision peace as this quiet, still, calming time with coffee and plants and worship music playing in the background. Which totally can happen, and it's crucial to cut out time in your day to have quiet moments to listen to God and his Word. But where do you find peace when anxiety strikes?

Anxiety can come in a variety of moments. For me, I could be in transit in a loud subway car, I could be at work with a large list of tasks in front of me, I could be on the phone having a difficult conversation with someone I care about. I need peace most in the moments that are loud, the moments that cloud my thoughts, the moments that are hectic and complex. When the heart rate quickens, when the breathing gets constricted, when thoughts blend and blur together like slop, God promises peace. 

What anxiety fails to remember is that peace is Jesus. He is the Prince of Peace. Anxiety fails to acknowledge that Jesus wins every war our thoughts may wage.  If Jesus is around us, so is peace- right in reach, a breath away. It's not about earning or acquiring an emotion of what we perceive peace to be, but just accepting that "Jesus is here. Jesus is peace." We wrap up the concept of peace to be an emotion of calm, but more realistically, peace is an "I know that I know" truth that if Jesus is near, so is peace. And that peace was created for us. 

Anxiety's hands are trying to grip the throat of our generation- trying to cut off our breath. We all know a friend or relative who battles intense moments of anxiety. Maybe you deeply know the daily struggle of keeping that kind of breathlessness at bay. There are ways to fight this battle- with counseling, with a support system, with Jesus. When the mind is under siege, peace is a promise God keeps. He won't let you down. He is not far off- He is so close to you, waiting for you to just reach out to the peace He holds with an open hand. All you have to do is reach out.

Listen to Hillsong Young and Free's hit single, Peace

Why is the Worship Team just so cool?

Far and wide across Church culture is the desire to be on the worship team- so what makes this such a "coveted" platform to be on to spread the Gospel? From the choir to the band to the people leading "Oceans", a worship community can get confusing and is often highly criticized. So let's dive into where musical worship comes from and what it can feel like today.

The first ever mention of musical worship in the Bible is found in Genesis 4- "Adah gave birth to Jabal, who was the first of those who raise livestock and live in tents. His brother’s name was Jubal, the first of all who play the harp and flute" (Verses 20-21, NLT). This is a brief mention in a genealogy of Cain- which is an interesting direction for this passage to go. The first time music is ever mentioned comes directly from the bloodline of a murderer and someone who entirely left his home community from shame. Jubal was the great great great great grandson of the first murder and the first runaway, so his family name wasn't perfect- but he invented music. 

I'm not going to dive into what his name means in Greek (The Ram, in case you're wondering), but I do find that in all cases, worshippers are not perfect people. Worshippers don't have to come from perfect churched families. Worshippers don't have to have a great, obedient, clean past. Worshippers don't have to maintain a perfect image. How often do we gaze upon our church leaders who lead musical worship and perhaps wonder at their qualifications, their imperfect pasts, or the motivations behind who they are today. 

The Old Testament has numerous stunning accounts of musical worship- Moses' sister's tambourine song to praise the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea, Trumpets knocking down the immense walls of Jericho, Gideon's percussion ensemble beating an entire army into chaos, David calming Saul's demons, the choir that went before an army that seemed to be in defeat that sang their way into victory. These moments were when music was absolutely necessary for a real offense against an enemy- music broke down stone walls, beat entire armies, and rid people of demon torment. Pretty intense.

These instances showed entire bands of people in a desperate attempt for God's presence to come and change impossible circumstances. It was not about one person being seen or heard. It was not about the people of Israel looking to a singer who really had their life together. In the same way, today's Church should regard the act of worship as a combinative effort to pursue the presence of God to come into a place and shift circumstance to do things that are unnatural, unexplainable, and just awesome. Those moments are not about the worship leader at all- their life is only being used as a tool to carve out the working of the Holy Spirit in a given place and time. 

Given this, worship is not really about a singer, a guitarist, or even a team- it is a move forward in desperation for God to respond, and to praise His name no matter the outcome. Because of this, of course the worship team is cool. The role they play in the vast landscape of church servitude is beautiful, meaningful, and essential to communal victory in the Church. The worship team is not for individuals to be seen and heard- and though worship communities may lean in this direction over time, we can be reminded by Jubal that being perfect is not a requirement to being a worship leader. Leading musical worship is humbling, builds relationship, and builds the Church. No wonder it's just so cool. 

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