Community Builder #2: Intentionality

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Sara doesn’t know what to say to people so she sits alone at social gatherings, hoping someone will talk to her. Mark watches as people around him go out together in groups after church…he wishes they would invite him but they never do. Greg and Joanna struggle to find time to make friends. They both work demanding jobs and have three kids who are all in different activities. They have so much going on, they feel as if they don’t have time or energy to spare for other people. Carson just left for college in another state but all his friends stayed back and went the local university. He gets a few calls and e-mails when he firsts starts class. But then a whole semester goes by and he doesn’t hear from them so he assumes his friendships are over.

You might think these situations reflect a personality issue, a popularity problem, a schedule conflict, or the natural direction of long distance relationships. But the common thread through these scenarios is that each could be a lack of intentionality. The other issues are still there, but intentionality can clear a path through other challenges to find a better route to community. Our temptation is to hand off relational responsibility to everyone else while sitting back and hoping for things to happen. If you want to be a part of a group….if you want to have lasting, strong relationships….if you want friends that endure through many stages of life, then you must be intentional…

…in making your schedule. For years I have expected relationships to occur naturally. I go to church, my kids are involved in activities, we talk to our neighbors, we even invite people to our house. I have filled my life with activities with the precise intention of building relationships but it always seems like those relationships end up being surface level or non-existent. Basketball teams and neighborhood block parties and PTO meetings and girl scout troops are full of people but they will not bring community in and of themselves if they are not backed by intentionality. Make a friend at your kids’ school events but continue to see her on your own time. Go to the block party, but then give your neighbor a call or take them a treat later. Some schedule conflicts are unavoidable (job hours, college classes, caring for a family member, etc.). These responsibilities make it hard but not impossible to build relationships. Calling someone, even on a 5 minute commute, can make a huge difference in connecting with them. Invite someone to help you study. Ask someone to run an errand with you. Clear your schedule a little more if you can and if not, find a way to sneak time with people into the spaces that might seem uninhabitable. 

…in your purpose. I often get confused about the purpose of my life. The purpose of my life is not to have kids who are the best at sports or who get the best grades in their class. The purpose of my life is not to head up every function at my children’s school or be a part of every activity at church. My purpose is not even to have a great group of friends or to feel content and happy in my surroundings. My purpose is to glorify God. My purpose is to love God and to love others. My purpose is to seek first God’s kingdom and community is just the overflow of following these purposes. Making sure to reorient yourself to be more intentional about your real purpose can put you on the right track toward the community you are called to. Your way is self-oriented and inwardly focused. God’s way is welcoming and outwardly focused. 

…by doing hard things. I tend to be an introvert. People make me nervous. Conversations make me feel uncomfortable. I like being by myself. But, unfortunately for someone like me, socializing is the backbone of community. You have to talk to people to know people and for them to know you. You sometimes have to spend time in groups in order to strengthen relationships. You have to be with people in order to serve people and be served by them. You occasionally have to make a phone call or speak up in a conversation and that may be really hard. The extrovert, in contrast, may have no problem with these requirements. If you are extroverted, then you may thrive at parties and loud social gatherings. You may feel confident and even enjoy holding up your side of conversations, so your “hard thing” might actually look very different. Your community may become stronger if you come along side someone on the outskirts of socialization. Your relationships may be deeper if you ask questions and listen patiently while someone else answers. Your challenge might be to say nothing at all. Community is built through listening and waiting and putting others first and that may be really hard for an extrovert. In either case, you may have to do something hard in order to receive the intended outcome.

…in serving others. Serving others is, generally, not something that just happens. You hold open doors, you let someone go ahead of you, you say please and thank you, you give a hug…but these are just good behavior and not even close to what it means to serve.   Serving takes thoughtfulness. You have to plan and prepare. You have to be intentional.  I would challenge you right now to think of someone you can focus on serving this week and take action to follow-up with your plan. It may be as big as helping someone move. It may be as simple as sending a card. It could be painting walls or hanging a bag of treats on a door or walking a dog or going to lunch. It may be making soup or giving a ride or going for a visit. Whatever you choose to do, pray for a passionate desire to put others first. 

…within your stage of life. I once heard a story about a pastor who had a young member of his church come to him frustrated about the lack of community in his life. He felt like he didn’t have friends and he didn’t know what to do. The pastor’s response was, “at this stage of life, you can’t really expect to have friends”. He went on to explain various reasons as to why it was impossible for this young man to have meaningful friendships in his current situation and gave him no hope for his nagging life situation. Unfortunately this seems to be a very common belief. “I’m working and going to college right now, I’ll do stuff with people when my life settles down”…“I am homeschooling my four kids and my husband works late hours. I can’t possibly build relationships. Maybe when the kids get a little older.”….“I have a one-year-old”…“I’m starting my own business”…“I work two jobs”…“I have soccer and drama club and  AP classes”… “I travel a lot”.  Every stage of life is too demanding for community, if we allow it to be. Don’t believe the lie that any life stage makes it is too hard to connect with people. Such an attitude is directly ignoring the greatest commandment to love others and it promotes laziness and hopelessness.  There are ways around the hurdles in your life and even ways to use such hurdles as a source and means for building deeper relationships.  If you have children at home, there are other moms at home too. Invite them over or start a play group. I’ve seen the relationships formed from these groups grow and last through many other stages of the lives of its members. If you are working a lot, make plans to meet someone for lunch once a month and then follow up with phone calls throughout the week. Even a small amount of time together can add up to great support and friendship and is boundlessly better than no time together at all.  

…with your invitation. I have always been “Mark” in my example from above. I like being invited to things. I just never want to be the one who invites other people. It is awkward to approach someone. It is frustrating to coordinate schedules. It is overwhelming to choose who you are going to ask.  And even finances can come into play. The details become frustrating. I almost never do any inviting but then I hopelessly long to be invited. In order to be loved and included by others you must be able to love and include them as well. Community can only be formed when you jump in as a link in the chain and continue to build it by pulling others in with you. Don’t wait around to be called or invited or included. Be the one who steps up and invites other people. 

…with what’s in front of you. My husband and I left behind a group of friends in Ohio that was very precious to us. We had formed a community that most people never experience in their entire lifetime. We challenged each other, we spent holidays together, we ate together, we took care of each other, we endured hardships together. I am so grateful for these people. But I often feel as if I have given up on looking for relationships because I think that I have already peaked in the friendship department.  It has been hard not to make comparisons and to expect to find friends exactly like that. In so doing, I am missing out on the people that I have in my life right now…and who may eventually join together to form a community similar to what I had before.  But I will never find community if I continue looking behind me.  Likewise, I will never find community if I am looking for it beyond my current relationships. You can’t idealize and romanticize community by picturing a crowd of perfect happy people at a farmhouse table in a magically lit backyard. You will never find it. You can’t search for a friend who doesn’t come with baggage and completes you in every way. That doesn’t exist. Your community is right in front of you. Jump in and start building it with whoever God has put in your life.

…with your time in God’s word.  On the surface, the individual act of reading scripture may seem unrelated to community. But underneath lies the most vital way in which we need to be intentional. When your heart is drenched in the gospel it will overflow into the way you treat others. You will see the importance of caring for people because you have been so deeply cared for. When you are saturated in the words of God you will find it easier to hear his voice and follow His lead toward other people, not away.  When you have studied your Bible you will have on the forefront of your mind verses like “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31) and “a friend loves at all times”(Proverbs 17:17). And you will have the word of God dwelling within in you so you are prepared to admonish others as you do life together (Colossians 3:16)

Christ’s Example: 

Christ was intentional in his purpose. He was sent to earth with a mission from God and he didn’t let the world sway him to follow something else. He knew the way that was set before him and he followed it hard until the day he died. 

What was Christ’s purpose according to these passages? 

Matthew 20:25-28

John 12: 44-50

How did Christ ultimately fulfill this purpose? In what other smaller ways did he remain intentional to his purpose throughout his life?

How can you implement this same intentionality in your life?

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Community Killer #2: Judgmentalism

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As I stood in the checkout line at the grocery store a lady began talking to my infant daughter. The woman’s clothes were ripped and stained. Her dark hair was unkempt and matted in places. The lady was eager to talk to us but I felt myself putting up a wall. She was not in the same socio-economic class as me, she was of a different race than me, and she was much older than me…all of these qualifications gave her no chance of ever getting on the unwritten list of people who belong in my community. I didn’t exclude her in an intentionally hateful way but I allowed myself to subtly exude the idea, “I can’t imagine this ever working out so let’s not pretend we are friends”. And I’m guilty of this on the other end of the spectrum as well. I judge the mom at the library with perfect hair and makeup whose child is dressed in cute outfits for story time every week. I avoid building a relationship with her because I judge her entire personality, lifestyle and character by her appearance. I determine immediately on a single perception whether or not I should allow a person to be a part of my life.

Have you ever encountered a person whose appearance made you inwardly crawl away? Have you ever started making a list in your head of reasons that you shouldn’t talk to someone before they even say a word to you? Do you ever block conversations with fake smiles because you have already determined that your relationship with a person would never go any further based on their appearance, reputation or interests? Do you ever write someone off because you know their sin or you think you know what they are thinking? This is judgmentalism at its finest.

Judgmentalism says everybody is different from me and therefore not worthy of being part of my community. Either we judge others to be worse than us and not good enough for our company or we decide they are better than us and we are not worthy of them. Whether it is because of race, gender, or socioeconomic status…whether it is because of the house someone lives in or what school they go to…whether it is because of someones job or how they raise their kids…it is wrong and it is isolating. It keeps you away from others and it keeps others away from you. It limits my idea of what community looks like and therefore gives me fewer avenues on which to find it.

Judgmentalism often gives no room for growth so that anyone with a sin issue is removed from the equation. According to Romans 3:23 we all fall short, we all sin, we are all in need of growth and so this standard excludes everyone in one sweeping blow.  Be aware of your own sin and know that except by the grace of God you could go in the same direction. But even more importantly, know that your sin is as grievous as anyone else’s in the sight of God and Christ died for those sins so that all could be free from judgement.

Judgmentalism keeps me from being vulnerable and sharing myself with others. I am hesitant to share my most inward struggle with someone I have deemed unworthy of my time. In addition, judgmentalism makes it so that others are afraid to share their true self with me. People do not feel free to open up if they fear they are going to be punished or excluded for what they say or do. Vulnerability and honesty can never thrive in this context which are the cornerstones of thriving community.

Judgmentalism says I am the center of my world. I have convinced myself that if I want to build a community I have to seek out a group that is as similar to me as possible. I don’t spend time with someone who rides motorcycles because I enjoy shopping for antiques. I don’t invite a 75 year-old out for coffee because I’m 34. I don’t initiate friendships with single women because I’m married. I don’t sit with someone at church who has grandkids because my kids aren’t even teenagers yet. I’m on a mission to find someone who does exactly what I do, thinks exactly like I think and looks exactly like I look. That diminishes my options for possible relationships. That drastically limits my circle of community to one option…me…and that’s an unbearably lonely position to be in.

Judgmentalism says that I know the intentions of another persons heart. Some Sunday mornings I walk down the halls of the church with my mind acutely tuned to what I think everyone is thinking. “She thinks I’m sinning because I let my son go to soccer on Wednesday night…,” “he thinks I spent too much money on my outfit…she thinks I lied about being sick last week when I had to miss our meeting…he doesn’t think I’m volunteering enough…she is disappointed in me…he thinks I’m selfish…she thinks I’m rude….” And the list goes on and it makes me ashamed of things I’m not even guilty of and it makes me defensive of things that no one is even accusing me of. It cuts off relationships that never even had a chance to develop. But, yet again, I am guilty of being on the other side of this lonely equation. “She didn’t say hi to me…he was late…she let her kids go there…he said this…she did that…” and all is thought before I even get the complete story. I can never completely know why a person did what they did or said what they said. That is God’s job and to take on that role is a dangerous position to put yourself in.

Judgmentalism reflects what I think about God. It declares that I believe He is not fulfilling His role as righteous judge of the universe. It says that I think I am more just than He is…that my rules are better, my way is right and He has dropped the ball. The Bible says in Matthew 7:2 that “For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.” I don’t know about you but I would rather be set free from what God determines to be wrong than to be punished according to the laws I have created and broken. I would rather have a way out through acknowledging that God sets the standard than to be held accountable for every time I broke my own rules.

I wish I could have the eyes of my one year old to see every person as a person instead of viewing them as a list of qualifications. She smiles the same at the tattered lady at the checkout as she would at the kind faced, average stay-at-home mom that we talked to in the produce section. But I want to go a step beyond that. I want to at least give everyone the possibility of being a part of my community. I know they are all worthy of love and friendship because they are made in the image God. Anyone can be included in our community because, whether Christian or non-Christian, we are all made to reflect His glory. I pray that we can put down our pride, put down our rules, put down our need for sameness and allow God to gather us together in love.

Christ’s Example:

Read John 4

What does this woman have in common with all of us?

How did Jesus respond to her? How would you respond to her? What did Jesus do differently? How did she respond?

How did the Samaritans respond? What signs of increasing community do you see in their actions? (v.40)

What can you learn from this encounter?

Read James 4:11-12–

What are we asked to do?

What is God’s position?

Reread verses 6 and 10

What should our position be?

Community Builder #1: Commitment

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commitment

 

Twelve men. Eating, sleeping, serving, laughing and crying together. Learning and growing and depending on each other. Showing the absolute worst side of themselves in front of each other. Correcting and encouraging. Betraying and forgiving. The relationship that the disciples had with each other and with Jesus is an impressive display of what community looks like. Jesus asked a lot of the disciples: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me”. Meaning that if they wanted to be with him they had to make a commitment. If they wanted a part of this strong and lasting community they had to be all in. So how can we emulate this ultimate example of community in our relationships? There are six elements that can help us develop this type of community.
Constant. Commitment is not swayed by what is going on in your life at the moment. It is making phone calls even when you are busy. It is sending a text even when your life feels like chaos. It’s holding on to a friendship even when you feel that you have been wronged. It is making it work even when you move away from each other. It is continuing to pursue someone when they drop their end of the friendship. It means not backing away when things get difficult. They didn’t always get it exactly right but through the three years of Christ’s ministry on earth, the disciples stuck to their commitment to follow him. And, in the end, those who stayed true to their promise benefited greatly from that.
Exhausting. Galatians 6:9 tells us, “Let us not grow weary in doing good for in due season we will reap if we do not give up.” Investing in the lives of other people is an example of the “good” we are asked specifically to do in this verse and throughout the Bible. Loving other people is not an easy task. True commitment is wearisome and frustrating, it is not always what you feel like doing. There are times you will feel totally drained by the burdens of other people but you will reap the benefits of true community if you do not give up.
Inconvenient. A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity. (Proverbs 17:17). Community doesn’t always fit perfectly into your schedule. Taking food to a friend isn’t always on the way. It isn’t always convenient to have a long chat with someone who lost a loved one. It’s not always easy to spend a little extra time helping someone move. But it is in those moments that true community is born.
A Choice. Commitment doesn’t just happen. If you commit to running in a marathon you have to choose everyday to get out and train. You have to choose every moment to keep running. You have to choose to practice and eat right and show up for the race. You can’t make a commitment and expect the rest of it to fall into place. It is a moment by moment combination of choices. Commitment in order to form community is the same. You can’t just say you are going to do it and then go on with your life. You have to choose every day to do things differently.
Planned. In my last post I encouraged all those type-A people to destroy their planners if their need for a schedule is keeping them from ministering to people. But the reverse can be true of those who do not plan at all. Stacks of invitations without replies, neglected appointments, constantly saying maybe to anything you are asked to do, waiting around to see if something better comes along and never showing up for important events can all keep you from truly building into the lives of those around you. There has to be a balance. Your schedule cannot rule you but you also should not be so disorganized that you do not have time for other people. Your top priority should always be the needs of others.
Narrow. In an age where we can be measured by the number of Facebook friends we have, it is easy to begin to feel as if quantity is far better than quality when it comes to relationships. As Proverbs 18:24 says, “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” It is hard to build a solid, strong relationship with 3,000 people. There is a reason there were 12 disciples and not 100. Community comes through closeness and it is hard to be close with a crowd. To form community, it is better to invest deeply in a few close friends than to graze shallowly over every person you know.
Community can be developed out of commitment if its members are willing to stick together and focus on each other. It may take planning. You may end up exhausted. It may be inconvenient. But over time you will develop a small group that remains constantly bonded.

Christ’s Example

Read Matthew 16:24-27

What were the disciples asked to do? What does Jesus expect from his followers? What is the pay-off for this commitment?

Read John 15:15-17

What other benefits do we see from this commitment?

How does Christ himself exemplify this type of commitment in his relationships with the church?

 

 

 

Community Killer #1: Overcommitment

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When I was in high school I had every square inch of my life planned. There was rarely any wiggle room and I liked it that way. I went to church and was very involved in my youth group. In the fall I did soccer and the school play. In the winter it was basketball and choir. In the spring it was track and musicals. I did bible club and art shows and national honor society and I still had to find time to do my homework and actually go to school. Through the summer I went to church camp and even found other youth groups to get involved with. I went to bible studies and went on mission trips and started a band. I had my hand in everything. I thrived on being busy.

But I often found myself in situations where my friends wanted to hang out and I was too busy to accept their invitations. They wanted to come over and watch tv or run to grab some lunch or just sit on the couch and talk about life but I didn’t have time. I said no so many times that they stopped asking. I was always going somewhere or doing something. I was constantly rushing past people to get to the next thing. I was too busy for people and then I made myself even busier to push down the feelings of loneliness and seclusion that inevitably came from never actually spending time with my friends.

This way of living has bled over into my current lifestyle. Do you want to be in a bible study? “Sure.” Do you want to be in choir and teach children and help with women’s ministry and take counseling classes? “Yes, of course. Yes to everything.” Do you want to coach a soccer team and serve on the PTO board and write the school newsletter? “Yes, yes, and yes!” And then I find myself halfway doing everything and pushing everyone away so that I have time for everything I said I would do. My eyes are always darting to the next thing. My mind is always on something else. I am always running somewhere and forgetting birthdays and turning down invitations and flaking on relationships because I have to keep moving or it will all fall apart. I am constantly trying to accomplish twelve things at once and so I never really accomplish anything. My mind is so set on my schedule and tasks that I forget that there are people all around me who I am called to love. And because I’m not finishing the things I commit to, I am frustrated and I end up taking it out on the people around me or pulling away because I am ashamed that I didn’t do what I said I was going to do .

I know this mindset is keeping me from building a community. So what do I do?

1. Be here. Be now. Even when we are in the same place at the same time…at a church function or a backyard BBQ…we have trained our minds to be so active that we have already moved on to the next thing. We are already thinking and planning for tomorrow. Or we are worrying about what else we could be doing. One Saturday, my son had a soccer game. After the game our family had to split up in several directions to get to birthday party’s and meetings and to do grocery shopping. For the entire game I made lists in my head. I thought about who needed to go where. I imagined the scenarios that could occur so that I could deal with them before they even had time to happen. When the final whistle blew I realized that I had not been fully conscious for the last hour. I had not talked to anyone. I had not cheered for my son. I hadn’t smiled at the coach or complemented any of the team members. I left his game feeling as if I hadn’t really been there at all. I cannot enjoy conversation or remember details of the lives around me if my mind is whirring with other activity. I can’t enjoy what I am currently doing if my schedule is so full that I need all of my leisure time just to keep it organized.

2. Empty calendar, full heart. It’s okay to have an empty calendar. It’s not okay to have an empty heart. A couple of weeks ago I left my daughter’s gymnastics class thinking, “I just sat in a room with 20 other people and never said a word to any of them.…no wonder I feel so lonely.” I have been so busy lately that my e-mail inbox was overflowing so I took the time to clear it out. I had a book I needed to finish. I had a blog post to write. I had a grocery list to make. I handed my son his iPad and got to work. But we are not called to be busy, we are called to love. God tells us on multiple occasions that we have two major commands to obey. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. And…you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” I have often found myself so busy that I do not even think about God, let alone focus on how I can love Him more. And I am guilty of filling up my life with the good intentions of serving God while being too busy to even think about why I am doing any of it. Service for God becomes empty busyness…just like everything else…when I forget to do it out of love for Him. And, as well, it is easy to get so busy that I forget to love others. If loving people means to wipe your schedule clean or throw your planner in the trash then do that. When you are too busy, other people’s needs will be inconveniences…but they will be opportunities when you are available.

3. Know your goal and say no to the rest. I find myself saying yes a lot because I view each activity as an individual choice without making an overarching goal for my life. Does my son like soccer? Then I sign him up for soccer. Does my daughter want to play piano and take gymnastics and take acting classes? Then I sign her up for all of them. I like to read so I join a book club. While all these things have the possibility of building community they may, more likely, end up giving you random friendships in various different locations that never add up to solid relationships. If your goal is to build community then only say yes to the things that will help you build deeper relationships in the location you are in. If my goal is to build community then I shouldn’t say yes to driving 30 minutes away to have my child in an acting school where we don’t know anyone. I could, instead, say yes to a group of friends who are taking a bible study together. I could say yes to my kids playing in the same basketball league with their friends from church.

4. People, not projects. For the 2017 calendar year, our family adopted this phrase as our goal. We had noticed our lives had become cluttered with fixing our house and taking the kids to practices and writing books and checking off lists…but it was almost entirely empty when it came to people. We decided to make Tuesday nights a night of open house…we invited people to come as they are, eat what we are eating and do what we are doing (which is usually watching YouTube videos or doing homework…or if we are lucky the kids might put on a play or teach us a game). It has gotten loud, it hasn’t always been convenient and, tangibly, we have accomplished very little…but we have gained extra members of our family. We have made memories that will last much longer than painted walls or published manuscripts.

5. Be intentional about choices you make. Our busy lifestyles have created a constant flow of traffic that is never traveling in the same direction. We have paved our own roads and they never intersect. Sometimes we have to force our paths to intersect with others. I am guilty of making a plan for my life and pushing forward with determination in that direction without taking time to join up with anyone else in their lives. We may have to change our personal, individual goals so that they align with the ultimate bigger picture goal of forming better community. If you want to build community you may have to say no to your child playing travel soccer so that you can stick around and invest in the people you have already built relationships with in the youth league. You may have to go to an event that you aren’t that interested in. Or it may be as simple as sitting on your porch more often, resisting the urge to tidy the house one more time. The bottom line is that community will not just happen, you have to create it with intentionality.

Busyness is the enemy of true relationships, it does not breed true community. Fighting against overcommitment can be as big as changing your entire schedule or as little as putting down a book to listen. It can mean clearing your calendar or being more focused about the choices you are making. Or maybe you just need to be exactly where you are, making a point to enjoy exactly what you are doing right now.

Christ’s Example: Rest and Reorientation

Read Mark 1: 21-35

What did Jesus’ schedule look like on this particular day? What particular word do you see repeated that may clue you in to the pace of the day?

Do you think Jesus can relate to the temptation to be overcommitted?

Reread verse 35

What did Jesus do to make sure his life did not become overcommitted?

Read Mark 6:31

What did Jesus tell the apostles to do? How can you apply that to your own life?

 

I Don’t Love My Tribe…But I Want To.

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Tribe mentality has become extremely popular. The phrase “love my tribe” is on t-shirts and coffee mugs. People label their photos on social media with it. I’ve even seen babies wearing it across their onesies. But could this catch phrase actually be keeping us from the underlying sense of community that we really desire?

I am thankful that we have become aware of the prevalent loneliness that has attacked our lives throughout the internet era and, in response, have adopted a movement to combat the issue. “Love my tribe” in it’s essence is a direction in which I long to see all of us go, but all the hashtags and tattoos in the world won’t change the fact that we are surrounded by a culture that has mainstreamed loneliness while advertising community. Society tells us we should be independent, busy, and have perfect Facebook lives while also telling us it is possible to be so woven into other people’s lives that we begin to rely on them as a branch of ourselves.  These two ways of living cannot co-exist.  Tribe mentality has arisen because we see the disconnect, but unless we clearly dig into its underlying significance, we will remain confused about which direction we should be headed. Without clear parameters, we will inadvertently fall prey to a lifestyle that isn’t at all what we are aiming toward. We can think that community means baseball teams and PTO and church functions and BBQs until we slowly slip into the busy lifestyle that is actually preventing us from having community at all.

If we aren’t careful, the concept of tribe could become a commercialized pacifier for the ache of seclusion that has settled into our core. Our world has begun to think that if you feel lonely, you can throw on a t-shirt with the right slogan and you will feel better. Flippant use of the phrase can soothe us into thinking that we are not really as lonely as we feel. If we tell ourselves and the world how much we love and rely on the people around us, then it must be true…that we really are part of a group..even if our internal voices are telling us that we are lonely and miserable.

I have, more than once, put a “love my tribe” t-shirt in an online shopping cart simply because I long so much for it to be true in my life. In an idealistic way, I want to say “love my tribe” but what I am really saying is “I want so badly to have a group of people who help and encourage me. I want to pour into others and have them pour into me. I want to know others so deeply that I experience their emotions.” I have realized that to continue using the phrase could create a cycle of pushing down painful emotions that are meant to help me turn toward a solution. I can’t fix the problem of being alone if I am continually convincing myself that I am okay. All the talk of tribe could give me a false security about my relationships. If I label it with the right words and I say it often enough then I may be able to falsely convince myself that I have it, that I am truly experiencing “tribe” as it was meant to be experienced. I will never dig deeper into relationships if I’m already assured that I am deep enough.

I am not talking about everyone who uses this phrase. I love that so many people have adopted this concept and are implementing it into their lifestyle in a way that I struggle to duplicate. They are the ones who are picking each other’s kids up from school and cooking dinner for each other. They are the ones who are rushing over as soon as they hear the news of a death. They are the few who are opening someone else’s fridge without hesitation. They know where the coffee mugs are in someone else’s cabinets. They can order food for each other, they know each other’s dreams, they ask for help, they aren’t afraid of mistakes ruining what they have together. But I can honestly say that I don’t have this. I have friends, I have groups of people who I interact with and I have plenty of people I love and can trust.  I sit with the same people at church every week, I’m in a small group, I go to women’s ministry events. I’m in the choir. I go to bible studies. I have people over for dinner and go out with friends. But I do not truly have a tribe, and that’s my own fault. I don’t feel like I have community, but I want it.

Over the next few weeks I will be evaluating certain life habits that may be sabotaging my efforts to build a tribe. I will call these “community killers.” I will also be thinking through some things that I can do in order to make the tribe mentality a reality, I will call these “community builders”. Like me, you may feel like you don’t really have a tribe but the good news is that you can. The first step is recognizing that what you thought was community may not really be community at all and that a tribe is possible if you are willing to put in a little work.

The Best Way to Waste Your Gifts

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Gift-Guide

I am currently lost in motherhood. There are days I feel like everything that makes me who I am is slowly disappearing and I’m gradually becoming nothing more than the coordinator of everyone else’s lives.  I feel like the ultimate goal for the entire week is to find an elusive hour for myself to take a nap. At the end of the day there is little time or mental energy left to actually pursue an avenue for any of my creative abilities. At times I allow the hectic life of having small children to convince me that I am of no use to God. If my talents and abilities cannot be used in big, life-defining ways then, to me, they must be worthless.  If at the end of the day I do not feel like I have accomplished anything then I think that everything I did must have been wasted.

I am guilty of believing numerous lies that have kept me from using my talents for God’s glory. Here are a few ways that you could be wasting your gifts without even realizing it.

  • You are thinking too much about yourself. God has gifted me with the ability to sing and I’ve practiced my whole life. But for many years my tendency was to think about how singing made me feel. If I had a bad performance, I was crushed. I scrutinized every note and rated my success by how few mistakes I had made. My goal was always perfection. My goal was always to please myself. Within the last year God has shown me how much I was wasting my gift by looking at it that way. If I thought I might fail I just simply avoided the opportunity. I never took any risks by trying something new. I only shared my talent within very specific parameters. And worst of all I always thought about the details of my performance and never about how I could serve God and others with my voice. Within the last year I have learned to pray for those who are hearing me. I have learned to sing to my family and friends…no matter how awkward it feels. I have learned to let God guide my steps instead of always taking the reigns. And the rewards I have reaped from this are tremendous. When I laid the desire for my glory aside the burden of perfectionism, anxiety and selfishness disappeared and I was able to experience the joy of giving the glory to God, the only one who deserves it.
  • You could be thinking too small. You write in your journal every day but it’s only for you. You are afraid to let anyone read it or even know that you write at all. But what if you were meant to share your internal processing with others? You could open up to a close friend. You could write a blog post. You could share an idea with your Sunday school class or bible study. You could meet with another writer to encourage each other. You could even write a book or send an article to an online magazine. You could be potentially wasting your gift by keeping it all to yourself.
  • Or you could be thinking too big. My generation is particularly bad about seeking instant gratification. We have not had to work for things like people did in prior eras and so what has developed is a sense of entitlement, a need for recognition and a desire for great self-fulfillment. This can be prominent even in Christian circles where we are told to live big for God…step out of our comfort zones…do hard things…which in and of themselves are not bad concepts but have forced a culture that inadvertently expresses that big and brave and bold are all that counts. In order to keep our focus, we must balance bold living with steady plodding. We can’t all be public speakers and authors. We can’t all be missionaries and non-profit founders. We can’t all be on the radio or pastors of mega churches. Some people have to work in the nursery and serve communion and sit in the pew with a child and make sure the bulletins get printed. We can use these opportunities to support those who are doing big things. These may even be the situations that prepare you for the next step God has for you.
  • You could be too specific about how your gift is used. It is a commendable goal to want to be a pastor. But if that is the only acceptable venue for your public speaking ability then you may miss a lot of chances to bless others with your teaching. What if you teach a bible study at church?  What about teaching one-on-one in a mentor-type relationship? What about teaching at a college campus ministry meeting? Pray about a creative way to use your skills that could lead you in a different direction. Many of the most innovative, successful ministry opportunities have come about because someone with an unused gift prayed for an opportunity.
  • You may be failing to see the big picture. Matthew 6:33 is a familiar verse, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” Because motherhood robs me of brain cells…because I am weak and unfocused…because I cannot determine on my own what is the most valuable thing to be spending my time on, I must submit to what these verses are saying. If I put God’s kingdom first, everything else will fall into place. I can get so anxious about what I’m supposed to be doing, how I’m supposed to be spending my time, how I’m supposed to be using my talents, how I’m supposed to be serving God that I actually end up not serving God at all because I am so caught up in the logistics of it all. If I am working toward the correct goal…to build the kingdom of God…then every little bit counts. Every shoe tied, every nose wiped, every letter sent, every phone call made, every hug, every text message, every word written…adds up to something greater than myself.
  • You may be forgetting who you are trying to please. The ultimate goal is not to feel pleased with yourself at the end of the day but to please the one who has given you the ability to do what you are doing. You can please God just as much by singing your child to sleep at night as you could standing before a crowd of thousands or recording a chart topping Christian hit. Or if you worry too much about pleasing others you could become paralyzed with doubt or you could become unfocused and wishy-washy because you are swaying with the differing opinions of those around you. Focus on pleasing God in every decision you make and you will never be wasting time or opportunities.

God has strategically equipped us all with the skills we need to serve Him but if we continually give in to these pitfalls then we could be wasting our gifts and talents without even realizing it.  How can you reshape your thinking so that you can guard against wasting your gifts? In what other ways could you be wasting your talents?

The Perfect Sunday Routine

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church

Every Sunday I imagine our morning routine going something like this:

I awake to the smell of coffee. My husband is already up and has prepared my cup exactly to my preference. I don’t need the alarm because I wake cheerfully to the soft sounds of sweet baby coos coming from the bassinet beside me. I have time to enjoy a leisurely cup of coffee and consume an egg white omelet with loads of veggies that were grilled the previous Sunday during my afternoon meal prep for the week. My family eats together as we do our family devotions over breakfast.

My kids don’t need to be reminded to put on the clothes that I ironed the night before. They comb their own hair and brush their teeth without being asked. They even wipe down the sink and clean the countertops…and they succumb to the sudden urge to scrub the toilet as well.

Worship music is playing throughout the house while the kids look over their memory verses in the living room. I have plenty of time to shower, dress, fix my hair and put on my makeup before the baby needs to be fed. Then we all file calmly and peacefully into the van. More worship music is playing in the car. The sun is shining.  The kids are happy. I feel relaxed.

We arrive on time. I am well prepared for the solo I am scheduled to sing. My kids go to their classes without complaining. The baby is cooperative and happy. I sing miraculously and I feel pleased with my appearance, my accomplishment and my overall demeanor. I leave feeling blessed and fulfilled because I gave a perfect performance and everything fell precisely into place.

But if I’m honest, most Sundays are a disaster and I marvel at the fact that we even make it to church at all. They usually look more like this:

I wake to the alarm and a crying baby. I try to eat something healthy but Lucky Charms sound better. I shovel the sugary cereal into my mouth with the smell of a freshly filled diaper wafting from the fussy infant in my lap.

I rush to put on makeup, desperately trying to cover up dark circles and wrinkles. I suddenly notice that my sleeve is covered in baby vomit. My clothes will have to be changed but I can’t think of another thing I own that fits and is clean. I comb my 9-year-old’s hair and try not to let my frustration spill out in the way I speak to her. I fail and feel guilty for the rest of the morning.

The screaming baby disrupts my already strenuous schedule. I stop to feed her again even though we should be leaving in 5 minutes and my hair still looks like a yeti that got ahold of a hairdryer. I try on three shirts only to discover that they are all too small because of the extra 15 lbs of baby weight I still have taunting me around my middle. I start to cry but realize I don’t have time for that so I grab the least tight shirt and head out the door with it still unbuttoned.

On our way to church I discover that my shirt is definitely not going to stay buttoned and I finally let myself cry about it…but not too much because I don’t want my mascara to run. I shimmy into the pair of Spanx that I had peeled off on the way home from church the week before, praying that the people in the car next to me have their own Sunday morning crisis to worry about so their eyes aren’t drawn to my disastrous scene.

I’m supposed to sing a solo but I’m running late for practice.  The tight ball of thoughts I had been winding all morning begins to unravel…”should I feed the baby before or after practice?”…”will I have enough time to work on my song?”…”I look like a mess!”….”wait, doesn’t my husband have to give announcements this morning?…how is that going to work out?”…”did my son remember to put on underwear?”

The morning speeds along like a cut-rate circus…fumbling, off-balance, poorly trained, unprepared.  As I step on stage to sing, I can’t remember the words to the first verse. My voice in the ear piece is too loud and it’s shaky and off-key. I can’t hear the piano.  I want to sound good…no I want to sound perfect. I want to get every entrance and every word and every note exactly right …but all that enters my mind is “I can’t”!

And even as I sing it doesn’t sound right in my head. I close my eyes and raise my hands and pray that God uses my Spanx wearing, crazy hair, shaking voice- self to reach people who need to hear the words I am singing. It’s in that moment that I know I can’t, but He can…and I step back and let Him. I no longer tell myself that I have to get it right but only that I have to give Him the glory. And the cracks in my perfection begin to feel like the perfect place for God to shine through. In the midst of my inadequacy the audience rises to their feet and I know without a doubt that it’s not me that is stirring them to move…it’s not my skill or my accomplishment because in that moment I have nothing to offer…it’s God showing His strength through my weaknesses.

I realize on the drive home that I wouldn’t trade my mess for the perfection of a properly synced Sunday morning. I wouldn’t hand over the feeling of completely falling apart in order to receive a life that seems to perpetually fall into place. I wouldn’t trade in the overwhelming defeat and the lack of control that I experience on a daily basis because every faulty step along the way reminds me that I have a Savior who is stronger than me. When my weaknesses overtake me and all I can do is cry in desperation, “I can’t”…His response to me is “But I can”.  And He will do it much better than I ever could on my own. If I could do it all by myself, I would miss the chance to see God work in my mess…I would keep moving forward and never seek to grasp His mighty hand.

If everything was perfect, if I always got it just right, I would be deceived into thinking that I am in control. If I could take care of it all and I always felt like I was doing my best work then I would be missing the chance to see God do it better. In the end, I would take every blunder, every fault, every mistake because every single time I mess up I can be reminded that I may not have it all together, but He does.

So, I don’t need the perfect Sunday routine. I think I’ll hold on to my mess…it seems to be working for me.