Category Archives: The Church

The Greatest Love Story of All Time

Who enjoys a good love story? I know I do. Whether it’s in a book or movie, I love the experience of watching a love story unfold, it just feels good to witness that love.

When I think about some of the best love stories I’ve read or watched, there are a couple of things they have in common. And as it turns out there is actually a formula that authors and screen writers use to create the perfect love story. According to Writer’s Digest there are four crucial basics that every love story must have:

  1. A hero and a heroine to fall in love
  2. A problem that creates conflict and tension between them and threatens to keep them apart
  3. A developing love that is so special it comes about only once in a lifetime
  4. A resolution in which the problem is solved and the couple is united

Today is Easter, a day that makes up a key chapter in the greatest love story of all time. The story of a Father’s love that knew no limits.

If we look at those four basics of the perfect love story we can find each of them in the story of God’s love for us.

Number one: A hero and heroine fall in love. Of course, the hero in our story isn’t your average hero. It’s God. You might say He’s the hero of heroes. And before each of us was even born, He had already fallen in love with us. God created us specifically to be in relationship with Him and He has loved us from the beginning. Now, unfortunately we took a bit longer to recognize and accept this love. But if you are a believer, I want you to think back to when you first discovered God’s love and how you felt when you first accepted Him into your heart. And if you aren’t sure you’ve gotten there yet, that’s OK, it just means your love story is waiting to happen.

 

Number two: There is a problem that creates conflict and tension between them and threatens to keep them apart. Boy does our love story have this. In fact it has thousands of years of problems and conflict. But it all started in the garden when Adam and Eve chose sin instead of love. Over and over God’s people have chosen something — or someone –over Him. Often that someone else we choose is ourselves. Our own selfish desires. And if this love story were a movie or book, I imagine even the most devoted hero would have given up and moved on. But not our Hero. He continues to pursue us. He continues to forgive us. He continues to love us.

 

Number three: A developing love that is so special it comes about only once in a lifetime. Now this is the part of our story where we start to get closer to today’s chapter. Because while from the beginning God’s love for us could easily be categorized as “so special it comes only once in a lifetime”, it was really the day that God himself chose to walk on this earth in human form that changed everything. When our Hero decided that the best way to win our love was to meet us where we were, to become just like us, and tell us in His own words, from the lips of His own mouth just how much He loved us… I mean there had never been anything like it to come before, and there has been nothing like it to come since. Jesus Christ was that once-in-a-lifetime expression of love.

 

And so, that brings us to Number four: A resolution in which the problem is solved and the couple is united. Now remember, our conflict, the thing keeping us apart from our Hero is our own sin. So what did God do to resolve this? He made the ultimate sacrifice. He took all of our sin, nailed it to a cross and died. On a day, nearly 2,000 years ago, when the skies turned black, God looked down from that cross and said: “I love you more.”

And let’s pause for a moment and talk about passion. It wasn’t in our list, but every good love story has an element of passion in it, right? That day that God said “I love you more” and took from us the very thing that was keeping us separated? The Bible tells us that in that moment the “curtain of the temple was torn in two, the earth shook and the rocks split, and tombs were broken open!” (Matthew 27:51-52). There was so much passion in God’s love for us that at the exact moment He took away the thing that was tearing us apart, the moment He took on our sin, the whole world shook.

As beautiful of an example of love as this story is, it would be kind of a sad ending to the greatest love story of all time if it just ended there at the cross. Of course God, our Hero, doesn’t leave anything unfinished. He doesn’t leave us lost and alone, weeping in the realization of what love did for us.

No. He came back. He was resurrected. He made sure we knew that He was not leaving us for good; that His death was truly a resolution to what had been keeping us apart and now we could be together forever. Our Hero was raised from the dead and got up and walked among us once again so that we could hear from his very own lips these words: “surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)

He doesn't leave us lost and alone, weeping in the realization of what love did for us.

Today we celebrate the greatest love story of all time. And you know what makes it even better? We are part of that story. We are not simply moviegoers or bystanders to this love story. We are the heroine, the bride of Christ. We have been united with our great love, with our Hero because of Easter. Because of His death and resurrection there is nothing, nothing we can ever do to make him stop loving us, to give up on us, to leave us.

Now, go and live that story, it’s the story of your life.

 

 

Image Copyright: halfpoint / 123RF Stock Photo

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I choose hope

It’s been a hard couple of weeks to be an American, to be a human, to be a Christian. Tragedy has struck families and communities in Michigan, Louisiana, and Dallas. Innocent people were terrorized in Bangladesh and nearly 300 lives lost in Baghdad at the hands of terrorists. And I know the list doesn’t end here.

It’s easy to ask “why” and “how” when we read headlines and see videos of senseless tragedy, hate, anger and death. It paints a grim picture of the world we live in and feelings of doubt and worry over the future our children will inherit.

I know many Christians who feel the world no longer offers hope for change, or they feel things can only get worse, and they have started predicting, and even praying for, the end times.

But I’m just gonna say it out loud: I hope they’re wrong.

That my fellow Christians praying for Jesus to come back tomorrow, don’t get to see it in their lifetime. And here’s why:

In the midst of the tragedy and loss, I still see hope.

At the perimeter, in the headlines, we live in a dangerous world where evil gets center stage and every morning you hold your breath waiting to hear what horrible tragedy struck overnight. It’s hard to have faith that anything will ever change, that evil will ever be destroyed or at least slowed down.

But on the inside, below the headlines, in communities and homes and hospitals and churches, there is another story. It is a story where volunteers rally around grieving families who have lost their homes, possessions, and loved ones, providing for their basic needs.

It is a story where children are selling lemonade to raise money for cancer research and teens are spending their summer vacations serving in impoverished communities to build churches, teach the Gospel, and share love.

It is a story where marriages are being restored, friendships repaired, and forgiveness is offered in abundance.

It is a story of hurting, lost people finding healing through a community that loves and supports them in the name of Jesus Christ.*

These are the real stories I see Every. Single. Day. And I am filled with hope.

They are not attention-grabbing, headline-stealing stories. They are not even stories of hundreds of lives and hearts being changed in a single week. They are about one at a time: one life given to Christ, one heart healed, one relationship restored.

 

There’s an old song that we used to sing at summer camp every year when I was kid. I’m pretty sure they still sing it.

“It only takes a spark to get a fire going.

And soon all those around can warm up from its glowing.

That’s how it is with God’s love.

Once you’ve experienced it, you spread His love to everyone.

You want to pass it on.”

one at a time

On the inside, in our schools and churches, homes and communities, there is a glow, a radiating warmth. It is not extinguished in the midst of tragedy, loss, pain, and anger, but rather it becomes a beacon of light and promise.

Because a candle burns brightest in darkness.

And there are so many who are called and driven, with a sense of urgency, to spread that light, not because of their own desire or goodness, but because The Light is so brilliant it cannot be contained.

There are more lives yet to be touched, healed, warmed, welcomed, comforted and loved. There is still so much work to be done. I believe God is entrusting us, using us to do more for Him before it is all over.

And I am filled with hope for the future.

 

*The examples in this post are based on real people and events I have witnessed in just the last 6 months.

 

photo credit: candle without wind via photopin (license)

What you need to know if you’ve been hurt by the church

You went to church seeking hope, support, love, friendship, and truth. Instead you felt like a number, were told lies, saw hateful or scandalous behavior, and felt unwanted and judged.

I know how you feel. I’ve been there.

Church is supposed to be a place of refuge and encouragement; a gathering place for followers of Christ, people who are called to love like He loved, serve like He served, and speak truth and light into our wounded and broken hearts the way He did. But too often this is not the experience people have when they go to church, and so they walk out the doors never to return. In fact some would say the number of people leaving the church because they’ve been hurt by the church has grown to epidemic proportions.

According to Pew Research, there are now approximately 56 million religiously unaffiliated adults in the U.S., a number that increased by roughly 19 million since 2007, and nearly one-in-five U.S. adults (18%) who were raised in a religious faith now identify with no religion. Furthermore, the Barna Group reports that 35% of millennials who have left church cite hypocrisy and the moral failures of its leaders as two of three primary reasons why.

And my heart breaks for these people because I know what it’s like to be let down and injured, and feel like you will never find a church that gets it right. I have been in churches where staff members were having affairs, where I felt I was only valued for what I could give, where I saw angry and hateful words spewed during board meetings, and where man-made rules and procedures got in the way of grace and ministry to the community. I have hung up the phone with pastors and cried at the thoughtless words, and walked out of church doors vowing to never return again. I have spent months not attending church because it was too hard to always be the new family, and I wondered if in our endless searching we’d ever find the “right” church.

So I want you to know, I understand your hurt and anger, your trepidation and frustration if you are in this place.

But can I offer you a bit of hope? Some good news for all of you who have left the church or are still searching for the “right church”? It exists.

The place you seek where you will find hope, support, love, friendship and truth — it’s right here in Winchester, and in Charlotte, in Bedford, and Atlanta, in Des Moines, and Franklin, Lancaster and Phoenix. The church you are looking for is within a short drive from your home. But here’s what you need to know about that church before you go:

1. There are people leading the church. OK, you’re thinking, duh! Of course there are people leading the church! But here’s the thing: there are people just like you and just like me leading the church. And maybe even some like your neighbor down the street whom you don’t like very much because they always blocks your driveway and let their dog poop in your yard. And all of us? We are a mixed bag. We make bad choices, we get angry, we say hurtful things, we forget important dates. We send too many emails and do not place enough phone calls. We are all sinners. Even that pastor standing up front each week. It’s just some of us wear our sins more blatantly than others.

If you are looking for a church where every person is kind all of the time, the pastor never makes mistakes, and you will never see sinful behavior…well that church doesn’t exist…at least not here on earth.

2. Bad things happen to good churches. As mentioned in point one, churches are led by and made up of sinners. Even the most faithful congregations can realize scandal and unthinkable hurt due to the mistakes made by a few members or leaders of their church. But here’s an important truth: One bad event or scandal does not define a church.

It may badly damage the church, it may require big changes to be made. Some people may leave because the hurt is just too much to recover from, but there is hope for redemption and rebuilding, even after the worst sin. I’ve seen it first-hand. Don’t believe that just because a church went through a scandal that church is not worthy of your presence.

3. Churches change, and people change…sometimes it just doesn’t happen at the same time. Most churches I have been to or know of have changed over the years. Whether it be through their leadership, their mission statement, their size, or even their core values, in order for a church to continue to meet the needs of their community God will likely call them to make changes at some point.

Similarly, most Christians change over the course of their spiritual journey. Through both life’s circumstances and God’s workings within your life, a Christian can only stay in the same place so long before their relationship with Christ grows stale or distant. Unfortunately, sometimes a person’s spiritual journey leads them to places their church isn’t headed for. Similarly, a church may make changes before everyone in the congregation is ready or willing to hear the call…or they may, unfortunately, make decisions that are not aligned to God’s timing (see point one).

It’s OK to leave one church for another because you are not equally yoked. This does not mean church, as a whole, is a lost cause or that ALL churches will fail to meet your spiritual needs. God will always provide a group of believers to “hold in your heart as partakers of grace,” if you are willing to let Him do the leading (Philippians 1:7, paraphrased).

God will provide a group of believers

As a recovered “church shopper” I can tell you that perfect doesn’t exist in the church; because perfect only exists in heaven. It took me a long time to realize this and change my check-list of requirements. In fact, I pretty much had to throw out the entire list and narrow it down to one simple question: “Lord, where do you want me to be?” Once I made that my only criteria for selecting a church He put me right in the middle of where I needed to be (not at all what I would have chosen on my own, based on my own list of wants, by the way).

Yet today, I am part of a church family that I love with my whole entire being. Where I am loved and supported, and filled with hope and truth every week, while also being stretched and challenged where I need to be.

We most certainly don’t get it right all of the time. People have come to our church and left for a variety of reasons. My feelings have been hurt by things said or done by others, and I would not be surprised if something I did or said inadvertently hurt someone else’s feelings. We don’t all agree, all of the time. But we are a group of believers who have been placed together by the Lord’s design.

It is my “right church” for this part of my journey.

Yes, it’s true, there are some “Christian” churches that really should just take the word Christian off their sign because they holistically ignore the teachings of Jesus Christ, and show no intent to change. But I truly believe those are few and far between.

And I believe the right church for you exists. God has a body of believers He wants to place you with. Ask Him to show you the way.

Don’t give up yet.

Image copyright: malyeuski / 123RF Stock Photo

Journey to Heal: It’s time to live a better story

If you are a regular reader of my blog, then by now you probably know that I have a huge place in my heart for encouraging women who have been victims of childhood sexual abuse to speak their truth, find healing in God, and even restore broken relationships. My passion for this stems in large part from my own past, but even more so from my present. What I mean by that is the more I have shared my story, the more women who have confided in me their “me, too” story. The longer I have been involved in small group and women’s ministry, the more stories I have heard of women still battling for release from their past and healing in their present.

I long for every woman (and man) who has a story of childhood sexual abuse to know the freedom of repair that I have found in my life,through my relationship with God and the help of a wonderful counselor. It took me many years of hard work — sometimes taking one step forward, and two steps back — to realize complete healing and restoration, and I think that’s partly because for a long time I didn’t know where to go for help. There weren’t a lot of resources available to me 20 years ago when I started my journey, and I didn’t feel comfortable seeking help in the church.

Thankfully, things have changed. Today, more women are opening up about their pasts within the church and creating a safe place for others to seek help and support. There are also more resources available. One of these just hit book shelves last week, and it’s written by a friend, and fellow survivor, Crystal Sutherland. The book is called Journey to Heal: 7 Essential Steps of Recovery for Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse, and I believe with all my heart this book is going to be life-changing for millions of men and women around the world.

Now, before I go any  further, I want to say a few things. Firstly, I’m not being compensated in any way to share my thoughts on this book. Yes, Crystal is a friend of mine and I guest blog for her occasionally, but that is because I support the mission of her ministry. There are an estimated 42 million adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse today, just in the United States [source: National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse]. And that estimate is just based on reported cases, so we know there are many more. Folks, it’s going to take thousands of counselors, women’s shelters, ministers, sisters, friends, mothers, writers, etc.to come together with the same mission to end this desecration of youth and lead the victims toward a place of hope and healing. Crystal is one of the many called and equipped to help with this.

Secondly, I am sharing about this book because I’ve read it and I believe it is unlike anything else currently available to survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Despite our friendship and shared ministry, I would not be writing about this book if I didn’t feel the urgent need to get it in the hands of as many women and men as possible.

Now, if you are a survivor of abuse, or know someone who is, or if you are in a position of counseling and ministering to others who have been victims of childhood sexual abuse, here’s what you need to know: only God can provide true freedom and healing. While God did not create the sin that is damaging so many young girls and boys, He can bring the men and women they’ve become out of the darkness from their past and make them whole again.

This is what Journey to Heal is really all about. It is a guide for survivors on how to allow God to come along side of them and walk them through this journey toward healing, toward freedom, and toward a new life. Because, true healing can only happen once we place our hope in Christ.

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The seven steps Crystal outlines in the book include: 1. Committing to the journey, 2. Facing the truth, 3. Sharing your story, 4. Settling the unsettled, 5. Forgiving and letting go, 6. Discovering your true identity, and 7. Establishing a new life in Christ. Crystal put these steps together based on her own personal journey, the journey of countless other women she’s ministered to, and based on insight and guidance from ministers and licensed counselors who have spent years helping abuse victims. Even though this book didn’t exist when I went through my own journey, I can tell you these seven steps are all things I had to walk through to get to the other side; and they were all essential to me eventually finding freedom and healing.

I believe we all know someone who was a victim, and chances are many of them are still suffering the effects of the abuse from their past: whether that be through depression, addiction, a need for control, mistrust of others, body issues, failed relationships, feelings of shame, fear or hopelessness, or just downright denial, these things keep us in a permanent state of victim-hood and they prevent us from realizing the life God has planned for us.

“God has bigger plans for us than we have for ourselves…[but] we tend to settle for less than God’s best for us, because we don’t recognize our own value and worth,” explains Crystal in chapter 3 of Journey to Heal.

But God’s word promises this: “Fear not; you will no longer live in shame. Don’t be afraid; there is no more disgrace for you. You will no longer remember the shame of your youth.” – Isaiah 54:4 (NLT).

It’s time for a movement. Time for the church to rise up and be the source of hope and healing. Time for victims to refuse to accept the lie that a piece of them will forever be missing, stolen by their abuser, and leaving a giant hole in their soul that’s led them to settle for a life of suffering, of fear, and of shame. It’s time to end the silence and take back the joy, hope, and freedom that was stolen, along with their innocence.

Because God promises So. Much. More.

Because only God has the power to heal our brokenness and lead us into a brand new life.

I know, because I have lived this story.

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If you or someone you know is still suffering from the effects of childhood sexual abuse, you can purchase Journey to Heal from Amazon.com, ChristianBooks.com or wherever books are sold.

In addition to the book, Crystal is finishing up an online, real-time study that begins June 1st.

journey to heal online study

I leave you all with this prayer:

God, bless the women and men who have suffered the unthinkable. May they know that the sin of their abusers is not theirs to carry and they no longer have to bear the weight of their past. May they admit they desire freedom and they are worth the effort it will take to get there. But most of all, let them know that they do not have to do it alone. Let them find their strength in You; let them stop believing the lies of their abusers and the lies of the enemy, and let them instead believe the truth that they do not have to be afraid anymore, “there is no more disgrace.” Instead, there is a life of healing and of freedom waiting for them, a life filled with the beauty and grace of Your love. Amen.

 

I love you more: A Good Friday message and giveaway

The scariest question I can think of is one that I ask myself all too often: What if I love them more than they love me?

For as long as I can remember it’s been my biggest fear and worry, that the people I love the most don’t love me back, with the same fervor. Or that at some point in time I will do or say something to cause them to stop loving me.

It’s a terrible thing to live with that kind of fear — fear that I am not worthy of unfailing love.

That I am not enough.

There have been relationships in my life where I saw my fears come true. When love turned away. When it left. When it turned out to have conditions.

Have you been there, too?

But when I was 19 years old I began to understand, for the first time in my life, that there is one love that’s different.

There is One who is love and whose love comes without condition. One who loves me more than I could ever love in return.

It was during my first year of college that I attended a retreat led by the campus Lutheran student group I was part of and students at nearby college Lenoir-Rhyne. On the second evening of the retreat we were taken into a small amphitheater in the woods. There was nothing on the stage except a cross with a light shining on it. We sat in silence for a few moments and then we heard the voices of the retreat leaders as they began to recite the Stations of the Cross.

I sat there in those dark woods, staring at that cross and listening to those voices act out the story of what Jesus went through in his final hours. The hair on the back of my neck stood as they described the insults hurled at Him from the crowd. I flinched when they depicted the nails being hammered into His wrists and feet as the sound of a hammer striking metal echoed through the woods. And I sobbed as they recounted the words He said before taking His last breath.

I had been a Christian most of my life and, intellectually I knew that Jesus had died for me. I grew up hearing about His death and resurrection, but until that night 20 years ago — sitting in the woods, staring at a cross and hearing the story come alive around me — I did not understand the love that was the impetus for His death.

 

As a child and teen I always wondered at the name Good Friday. What was so “good” about Jesus being beaten, tortured, and murdered, while his family and closest friends watched? To me it seemed all the “good” came on Easter when He rose from the grave. Now that was some good stuff! Reason to celebrate. But Friday – the day he died a brutal death?  It seemed to me a more fitting name would be “Somber Friday”.

And if you’ve ever been to a Good Friday church service then you know that “somber” is definitely the mood, too. The Good Friday services I’ve been to feel a bit like attending a funeral. Everyone whispers in hushed tones, feeling the weight of all that happened on this day nearly 2,000 years ago. There is rarely any music or singing  (at least in the churches I’ve been in), just a shroud of sadness and darkness that fills the air.

And yes, there is something appropriate about that somberness, about the solemn reverence. But there is also something beautiful, hopeful, and good about this day, too.

It is the day that God said: I love you more.

John3-16

I will admit that sometimes I forget this – not the act, but the love behind it. Sometimes I still ask myself that scary question and worry that I will never be loved enough.

Last year I attended a women’s conference and the team from Fashion & Compassion was there. As I perused their beautiful hand-made items, I found this necklace that simply said Loved, and I knew I was meant to have it and to wear it as a constant reminder that I am loved by my heavenly Father – without condition or limits.

A reminder that I am loved back; that I am loved more.

I’d like to “share the love”, if you will, by giving away one of these beautiful sterling silver Love necklaces from Fashion & Compassion, as well as a copper Love key chain (for those women who don’t like to wear necklaces, or for the few brave guys who read my blog).

Here’s how you can win one of these items.

  1. First, send this post to a friend who needs to be reminded that they are loved, or share via social media if you think all of your friends need to hear this message!
  2. Once you’ve shared this article, please comment on the post (either directly at the bottom of this page in the Comments section OR on the original Facebook post) with these words: I am loved. If you are commenting directly here on the blog, please be sure to enter your name and email. I have no way to contact you if you win without this information.
  3. On Friday, April 1st I will select two winners, at random, to receive the necklace or the key chain.

 

Happy GOOD Friday!