A Punching Bag’s Last Request

Written and rewritten after each wave of conviction. This is not the original draft.

Anyone who followed my writing for the past two years would understand my camaraderie with a reliable, worn out punching bag.

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Our marriage, our emotions, our spiritual walks took hit after hit after hit. And, like most good Christians, we put our heads down and held our ground for each volley, hiding (sometimes) trustingly behind our shields of faith. Because that’s what Christians do. They endure. They stand firm. They keep taking hits.

And that’s halfway true.

I have allowed myself to survive in that half-truth ever since we set foot outside of my comfort zone, my hometown, safe and reliable Pittsburgh. My fingers were pried off of so much I held dear… and isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? Survive this life until we’re whisked away to heaven?

Partially. Lately, the Spirit has been convicting me of the other half of Christian suffering: perseverance. I can almost hear Him, rumbling and stern on my soul… Enough.

I’ve been stuck as my own punching bag, bracing myself for every punch God sends my way. Youngstown? Punch. No biological kids? Punch. No church plant? Punch. No church family? Punch.

And I just kept bouncing back, expecting the next hit and never really moving forward. I wallowed, almost relished, in the seemingly constant beatings. Suffering became an idol to me. Did it make me feel more spiritual? More mature in my walk? Less naive?

Christians are to expect suffering, for sure, but we’re not simply called for spiritual beatings. We’re supposed to defend ourselves with our shield of faith, then plunge forward, girded with truth and wielding our sword of the Spirit, confident in our breastplate of righteousness and running ever onward in our shoes that bring the gospel of peace.

I’ve been a mediocre Christian. I’ve cowered behind my shield for two years, living as the barely believing punching bag. And I gave room in my soul for the devil to reap doubt of God’s goodness, God’s grace, God’s faithfulness. Why else could the past two years have happened? Why else would God ruin Christian fellowship for me forever? Why else would I still sting a little while joyously congratulating pregnant friends? God can’t be good. God can’t be gracious. God can’t be faithful. Look how He hurt me. Look how He persecutes me. Me. Me. Me.

Enough, says the Spirit.

So here is my request.

Close that chapter for me, Lord. Never let it leak into my joy in You. Thank you for my permanent reminders of your presence with me during that time, but don’t let them rekindle doubt. Remind me of how You’ve changed me. Use my scars for your glory. Put my hell to good use. Give me strength and courage to keep running. Make me give you credit for that strength and courage. Don’t let me stand still.

The key issue is what goes before and after the ‘but’ in your life. You can say, for example, ‘I am a follower of Christ, but I cannot have children and so life will be dominated by disappointment’, or you can run it the other way around: ‘I cannot have children, but I am loved by God and there is joy in him’. The question is where the weight lies. Either way there is disappointment; but we can define our life by disappointment or we can define our life by Jesus. The first is an indication of idolatry; the second is a sign of real, hope-filled faith.

John Hindley

 

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To My Kind Titus 2 Women

First, thank you.

Your diligent, prayerful watch over my soul’s travels offers more encouragement than you know.

Your wisdom and discernment, gained through experience and quietly, graciously, resolutely given in conversation shows me what God has shown you and what a blessing older Christian women are to young believers.

Your joy in my joy, my accomplishments, my moments of revelation assures me I have an earthly cheerleader, someone in my corner, another woman with feminine emotions and desires who keenly understands my heart’s experiences.

Thank you.

Know that I appreciate your sympathy — no, empathy — when I tell you I might not be able to have children. I know that you, as a woman, as a human wired with motherly instincts, you feel with deep sincerity the hopelessness I felt when I first heard.

Know that I see the lights in your eyes scramble, most likely praying as I speak for words to say. And that whatever words you do  say, I know came from a kind, compassionate, hopeful, yearning heart.

Know that I feel your genuine hug, your comforting hand on my shoulder, your sweet disposition cringing, effortlessly feeling my emotion.

But know that I am a complete woman in Jesus.

I know you know this.

But sometimes, I think, Christian women tend to forget that our first priority as saved-by-grace souls is not to have a family.

It’s not even to get married to a saved-by-grace man.

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This infertility, this possibility of childlessness that seems to grow as time goes on due to birth control complications, processed food diets, and the cultural push to refuse marriage and motherhood until your 30s — this epidemic is sneaking up on the Church and the Church doesn’t know how to handle it.

I need to hear that God has a magnificent plan for me with or without children.

Not that an acquaintance was told the same thing by the doctors and well, she has a circus of children now.

I need to hear that my satisfaction is Jesus Christ.

Not that there are alternatives and I could always foster or adopt if I can’t birth a brood of my own.

I need to hear that God is teaching me something in this, that He is showing me contentment in His ultimate plan for my life.

Not that I shouldn’t give up trying to achieve my own desires for a family.

I shouldn’t feel like I need to defend God’s design for my future to anyone, especially a fellow sister in Christ.

I know you want me to experience your joy as a mother. I know you don’t understand why I’m not striving for medical procedures, why I’m trusting what my very careful and thorough doctor diagnosed, why I’m seemingly lying down in the dust and letting it all go.

I know you knew I was trying to have a family. You knew how much I wanted it.

I know how often you prayed I would receive it.

Thank you.

But now things are different. God is working to make me content in His decision. What good is it for me to dwell on whether God will change it up in the future? What harm will it do for me to rest in childlessness? Why do I need to hurry and foster or scurry and adopt? Can I not serve God as a married, childless woman? Can I not rejoice in the little things now, the Saturdays I’m able to sleep in, the Sundays where I only have to dress myself, the trips Mister and I can take without tiny humans interrupting?

Am I not whole in Christ? Was I not made complete in Him the very second He scooped my soul from the licking flames of hell?

Encourage me in what God has called me to do now, instead of stirring discontented hopefulness in things God has not promised to me.

I trust you to do this, because you are a beautiful, wise, kind, comforting, loving, godly, truthful woman of God.

I thank God for you daily.

Words, Words, Words

When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.

Proverbs 10:19

I’m an introvert.

Like most introverts, I don’t talk a lot. I find more comfort in writing out my thoughts than speaking them.

But, sometimes, introverts need to talk. And when they find someone willing to listen quietly long enough, they can talk just as much as any extrovert.

And often, when that happens, my words are empty and vain, puffs of air that hold no real weight or generate no real thought.

The social media infested age we live in doesn’t help much, either. Somehow, in the course of eight years, we’ve come to believe that everyone we know needs to read what we have to say. So we talk, whether we should or not, whether people say we talk a bit much or not, whether people have time to listen or not.

We don’t ask them questions, we just answer their questions.

We don’t just answer their questions, we beat them into the dirt, mauling the question with more words than necessary.

We talk about us.

We feel great about us.

We feel great about us talking about us.

We walk away from the conversation thinking we probably were used by God to enlighten or instruct or bring encouragement or joy to the other person.

But we didn’t.

We talked over them, or we hedged their thoughts and opinions out with our words. We simply talked about ourselves or other people as if we were the only ones in the room.

And God is never involved in that.

Some, including myself, choose to excuse behavior based on “extrovert” or “introvert” tendencies.

But God never breathes these words in His word. He simply instructs His children to avoid foolishness, which inevitably tumbles from our lips when we heedlessly open them.

Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding. Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.

Proverbs 17:27-28

Let us mind our words and hold our thoughts to the light of Christ, so that, when we open our mouths to speak, they are words worth listening to.

Red, Part 2

Remember when I wrote a morose piece about moving to Ohio? I waxed long about how miserable finding a church would be, how hard it would be so far from my family, blah blah blah. I expected to be living in Columbus by now, plastered with Ohio State Buckeye paraphernalia to protect myself from the Pittsburgh-hating natives.

God is funny.

That niggling feeling about Ohio? It wasn’t wrong. I mean, it wasn’t right, but it wasn’t wrong.

Instead of hunkering down in Columbus, surrounded by Buckeyes and Browns and Bengals and whatever else Ohio stands for, we’ll be hunkering down in Youngstown, surrounded by Buckeyes and Browns and YSU Penguins (and whatever else northeastern Ohio stands for).

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Cousin-love and Mister

That’s right, folks. The so-called “armpit” of Ohio. Our new home, our new community.

And not just for a year-long lease, my friends. Not like pokey, quaint Hermitage. No sirree.

We bought a house. An actual house. Where we can get an actual dog and start an actual family and live for actual years.

I like telling non-Youngstown people that we’re moving to Youngstown. They kind of get this frozen look on their face, like they’re trying to keep the positive, “you got a house” vibe while wondering if our next Christmas present should be a panic room. They seem to cough out an, “Oh, how exciting,” while their brows furrow ever so slightly. Did we mean to move to Youngstown? Was it forced? Did Mister get a job there? Did get a job there? No, really, why Youngstown.

I don’t blame them. Youngstown hasn’t had a glistening report card since the steel mills crashed in the ’60s. It’s listed as one of the most miserable, depressed, dangerous, dead-beat cities in the United States, and for good reason.

But what those Buzzfeed and Movoto and HuffPost articles don’t talk about is Youngstown’s resilience. Sure, the steel mills have been torn down and flattened. Most downtown buildings stand empty. Most houses stand empty. Corner stores still run drug deals in broad daylight, waving as the police drive on by. Youngstown is tired. It’s dirty. It’s mugged and left by the alley dumpster. It’s struggling to breathe under the weight of nearly 70-some years of mob and gang crime. It’s got nicknames like “Bomb City” and “Armpit”.

Youngstown is down, but it’s not dead.

Small businesses like local restaurants and cafes are moving into the main drag of the city. The Youngstown Business Incubator fosters and hatches small software companies, most of which are growing rapidly. Youngstown State University is investing time and energy in providing young professionals for said small companies. The hospitals and medical offices boast renovations and high-class care. The Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation devotes itself to rebuilding communities, initiating neighborhood watches, and planting public vegetable gardens. Our own dear church body is praying and fasting and seeking God’s will in nestling deep within downtown Youngstown, to provide Biblical teaching to YSU students, Youngstown professionals, the homeless through the local rescue mission, and the broken homes throughout.

And where has God placed Mister and me?

In said armpit.

He gave us a lovely home only four miles from downtown. He burdened us with a compassion for foster children. He has given us a spiritual family, our wonderful, passionate, loving church, to keep us accountable and encourage us. He did all this to set us up for His mission: Youngstown.

So yes, we’re moving to the most miserable city in Ohio. And we’re so excited.

When Good Things Go Bad (or, On Subtle Idolatry)

Thoughts after discussion and prayer concerning our church’s vision/mission in Youngstown.

Do you worship the God of mission, the God who has a heart for the orphans, the widows, the impoverished, the sick, the down-trodden? Do you worship the God who has a heart for you, the sinner He chose to save? Do you worship the God who, when He saved you, instilled in you a heart for His mission? Do you worship God?

Or do you worship the mission? Do you work and serve in good things with good intentions for motives other than worshiping the God of those good things? Do you worship the fuzzy feeling you get when you “do” missions? Do you worship how it makes you look? Do you forget to pray for the mission? Do you assume the mission is God’s will because it is good? Do you worship your desire for the mission and fail to check if God wants you to do the mission now?

Do you worship the God of worship, the God who was worshiped by His servants in heaven long before He spoke creation into existence? Do you worship the God who deserves more worship than we can hope to give? Do you worship the God who created you for worship, who loves to hear your praise and your songs, who wants to fellowship with you as you worship? Do you worship God?

Or do you worship the act of worshiping? Do you dwell on how it sounds, how it makes you feel, how you lift your hands or how you keep them at your side? Do you worship the kind of worship that you personally enjoy? Do you worship the churches that worship “correctly”? Do you worship the songs instead of the God who gave you the heart to sing?

Do you worship the God of modesty, the God who carefully created your body and your soul as a temple unto Himself? Do you worship the God who knows and loves your quirky personality, your least favorite characteristic? Do you worship the God who desires us to present ourselves with cleanliness and humility? Do you worship God?

Or do you worship modesty? Do you scowl at the mothers who choose to wear leggings because it was the easiest thing to wear to the grocery store? Do you scoff at the girls who wear long, unflattering dresses and relish in your sense of Christian liberty? Do you worship the idealism of modesty, obsessing over the clothes you and others wear, pushing the sweet desire of Christian modesty into an ugly monster of legalism? Do you worship your appearance rather than the God who sees past them?

P.S.: Please pray for me in these ways:

  • Let me be careful not to make idols of God’s good tasks.
  • Let me pray for God’s will in my endeavors, because even if my endeavors are good and right and biblical, they are not always of God.
  • Let me worship the God of the endeavor, not the endeavor itself.
  • Let me not forget the Cause for worship, the Initiator of missions, the Source of modesty, the God of the universe, the Savior of sinners.

Now the God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great Shepherd of the sheep through the blood of the eternal covenant, even Jesus our Lord, equip you in every good thing to do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Hebrews 13:20-21

To My Fellow Reformed Believers

Stop it.

Stop it all of you.

Let me tell you why I am ashamed to say that I am “reformed”. Why I would rather just say I am a biblical Christian. Why I feel the need to explain that I am a Calvinist in that I believe exactly and only what the Bible tells me and what God reveals to me through it.

Because let’s face it, my fellow reformed believers, we are full of ourselves. It is as if we think we’re elite Christians. Yes, God chose us. It’s such an amazing fact that God chose us. We can all agree that, in our human nature, in our being ourselves, we do not deserve being chosen. We could not have performed any godly service, done any good deed, thought any righteous thought on our own, much less work our way into being saved by it.

But sometimes we forget that. Sometimes we hear as someone’s testimony, “I accepted Jesus”. And instead of seeing the fruit of God’s work in their lives and rejoicing, we chuckle and scorn and belittle them (to their face or in our minds), because, “Yeah well, you didn’t accept anything, chump.”

Believe it or not, we aren’t better than people who say they chose God.

God saves people however He likes. And if He saves someone who isn’t an innate Calvinist, then so be it. Celebrate their testimony. Rejoice in their spiritually fruitful life.

I know you think I’ll end it here, but, alas, there is more.

My fellow reformed believers, we not only belittle our Arminian brethren, but we condescend our own reformed siblings. We are divided into camps. Presbyterians on this hill, Baptists on that hill, and Charismatics on another hill. We claim brotherly love in Christ while shooting baiting questions like flimsy arrows, trying to trap the other in an ill-prepared argument from which we can emerge patting our own backs.

We smirk and snort and cross our arms and raise eyebrows at each other over second and third tier biblical issues instead of grinning and laughing and hugging and weeping from joy over our unity in the most essential issues. If only we could make the Baptists see they are lawless Sabbath-breakers who like to be dunked in water. If only we could make the Presbyterians see that they are snooty baby-sprinklers who think it’s possible to keep the Sabbath. If we knew more about the Charismatics, then we’d toss some darts in their direction, too.

Stop! Stop it already!

Yes, yes we disagree on things. We are human and not all things are revealed to us yet. It is inevitable that our sin nature will stir us to bicker and banter and poke. It is inevitable, but it is wrong, tiresome, and unproductive.

God’s mercy, grace, and unending love shown toward us quiets the debating tongues and breaks the prideful hearts. Hallelujah! that we are not saved based on the camp we join. I doubt Spurgeon and Ryle are dueling it out in Heaven when all that matters is the Lamb.

So let the noise rising to God’s ear when we get together be one of joyful fellowship and grace, rather than the clambering of bitter arguments. Let us show the world around us and our fellow believers that “reformed” doesn’t have to be synonymous with “ungracious”.

Solemnly Testifying

“But I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, so that I may finish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God.”

Acts 20:24

American Christians live comfortable lives.

True, we still suffer, struggle, and battle with this world. We’re still brought down by sin. We’re still endlessly tempted.

But consider how easily we live compared to Christians around the globe.

Asian believers choose to either meet underground or be imprisoned.

Arab believers face death and torture at the hands of their Muslim authorities and armies.

African believers distinguish between the mystic, pagan rituals of their culture and the true gospel of Christ.

Russian believers better not be more enthusiastic for Christ than for their Motherland.

American believers… have the choice of at least five churches to attend on a Sunday morning within a ten mile radius. American believers can drive or walk to a church service in the open, wearing our Sunday clothes, or carrying our Bibles. We can sing and play hymns and praise songs loud enough to be heard on the street outside, or in the houses next door. We can not only post sermons online for all to hear, but we can listen to as many sermons as we want in a day, in the comfort of our home, on the wi-fi in the airport, through our earbuds in a library. We can even whip out our Bibles in public, at a coffee shop with a friend or on a park bench alone.

American believers, compared to the rest of the body of Christ, live in the lap of spiritual luxury.

Perhaps believers from other cultures scorn us, calling us soft and passive, saying we don’t experience rocky bottoms in our Christian walk.

And they’d be wrong.

But, they’d also be right.

It’s easy for American believers to settle into our comfort. No one is holding our throats to a blade, ready to behead us if we don’t convert. No one is pointing a gun in our face simply because we’re different and in their way. No one is tossing us head over heels into dank prison cells because our faith threatens the structure of the government.

So we slow our steps in our Christian race. We turn down the heat of God’s fire in our souls. We switch on cruise control. We don’t dare be zealous for the Lord, for His word, for His grace, because, heavens, people will think we’re weirdos.

That’s it.

Of all the believers in all the world, Americans are the believers worried about being social outcasts, worried about losing friends, worried about what people might say behind their backs. We who live in a culture of churches on every block, we’re the ones terrified of being too radical, too enthusiastic for Christ.

We don’t want our unbelieving friends to stop talking to us, to think we’re uncool or unfunny. We tell ourselves it’s the way to minister to people anymore. And America’s #1 rule for ministering to unbelievers: Don’t, please, don’t shove it in their face.

So we successfully excuse ourselves from being zealots for Jesus, because we’re too busy painting our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter with what the world will deem an acceptable amount of Christian behavior. Meanwhile, believers in more antagonistic cultures with more anti-Christian governments are living more radically than us, for a much higher cost than the labels “social outcast”, “weirdo”, and “Bible-thumper”.

Pray for the the believers in our country, and pray for me. Pray that we will be radical, enthusiastic, and zealous for the cause of Christ. We all are ministers of the gospel; it’s high time we act like it.

“Do we do any work for God? Do we try, however feebly, to set forward his cause on earth, to check that which is evil, to promote that which is good? If we do, let us never be ashamed of doing it with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. Whatsoever our hand finds to do for the souls of others, let us do it with all our might (Eccles. 9:10). The world may mock and sneer and call us enthusiasts. The world can admire zeal in any service but that of God and can praise enthusiasm on any subject but that of religion. Let us work on unmoved. Whatever men may say and think, we are walking in the steps of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

J.C. Ryle

Source: imgur.