All I Know is Grace: A Life Update

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This is a story about a God who is Good, as experienced recently by me. This is a story about joy. If you’ve been waiting for a life update post, this is the one you want to read.

I shouldn’t still be as surprised as I am by the ways that God shows up. Not after the wild and powerful ways he has provided for me and the people I care about over the last five years. Not after experiencing firsthand the ridiculous abundance that exists in his kingdom. I’ve seen God provide the exact amount of money I would need to pay for a year of schooling, bring connections that turned into places to live, heal what seemed impossible. And yet, it catches me off-guard so much of the time.

We were talking in my small group recently about the apostle Peter and how relatable his example is, how it’s comforting to know that even the people who were closest in proximity to the actual Son of God missed the point time after time. Because how often do we mirror his attitude of this seems awesome I want to be a part of it oh wait no this is hard I can’t do this Jesus help I’m literally going to drown now this is bad news what is happening? Every. Dang. Day.

If you’ve talked to me or read anything on this blog in the last several months, you’ll know that I walked away from a full-time job at the end of June. God blessed me with incredible peace through the entire process and used the time this summer to help me sort through a lot of things that were going on in my head and heart, leftovers from a painful season that left me feeling discouraged and confused. I am so grateful to have had the time to work out my own emotions surrounding it all, a bit like rewrapping a ball of yarn that had come undone. It wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

But when one morning, I woke up and my hands were completely seized, I wondered what had happened. Then I remembered that I had been working as a freelance transcriptionist and my hobbies include writing novels, classical piano, and knitting. Oh. So yes, the wild case of tendonitis should not have come as a surprise.

This all happened around Thanksgiving, which is always my favorite time of year second only to Christmas. I spent some concentrated time praying on Thanksgiving weekend – prayers of gratitude, obviously, to suit the season, but also really honest prayers where I told God a lot of the things that were going on in my brain.

So as I sat at home and wondered where my life was headed, alternating between heat and ice on my hands, I told God my fears about not having a job, and how I hoped that the music store where I had interviewed for a job would call me back soon. Because while the unemployed freelance life had been wonderful in a lot of ways, it was no longer a practical reality. I loved having the flexibility to be wherever I wanted to be, and I got more reading and writing done in those three months than I have in the last several years combined. But a steady source of income was significantly lacking, especially when I was unable to sit down and make a little extra money and stretch out my savings by transcribing interviews.

I told God that I was starting to worry about the logistics of the future.

I told God that I’d seen him lead me this far with illogical amounts of peace, and I was choosing to trust him to lead me out the other side because I could not see the path ahead.

I also told God that I miss the sky and being able to watch the sun rise every morning like I did last winter.

Watching the sun rise sounds like such a tiny thing but was such a huge part of my daily routine, and until the end of April I lived on the top floor of a building that was taller than most other structures around, so it was always completely visible. I would drink my coffee and pray and take pictures and treasure those moments before the rest of the world woke up. Now I live in a basement suite and that makes finding natural light in general a lot more difficult, let alone having a clear view of the sunrise.

On the Tuesday morning after Thanksgiving, my phone rang with a call from an unfamiliar number. I picked up, expecting that the voice on the other end would be the manager from the music store. To my surprise, it was not. It was a supervisor from a job that I’d completely forgotten I’d applied for, one of those resumes I’d emailed out on a frantic morning where I’d applied for half a dozen jobs at once. She asked me if I’d be willing to come in for an interview the following day, which I was.

The next morning, I went out and met with the managers.

The morning after that, she called me back and offered me a job, starting the following Monday.

I cried. I happy-danced around my house. I texted half the people in my phone. I bought myself the new book I had been wanting. Life was good.

So I made the most of my last few days of freedom, ran all those errands I had been putting off and telling myself I had endless time to get done, made freezer meals to pull out on those tired days I knew would come eventually, started to back up my sleep schedule so the alarm for my first day would be less of a shock. I made myself as ready as I could possibly be before stepping into a new role.                                                                                                    

But I wasn’t prepared for what was to come.

Because as I sat in my car on that Monday morning, waiting at a traffic light on the way to start my new job, I realized something. The sky was streaked pink and orange, little swirls of clouds reflecting the early morning light.

The sun was rising.

And it was beautiful.

 I realized that my drive to work will coincide perfectly with the sunrise for most of the winter.

These little prayers of mine, quietly spoken only to the Creator of the universe, came to be answered all in one outrageously personal moment.

Friends, I am here to tell you that God listens to our prayers. He hears us when we cry out to him, when we are brutally honest with him, when we present him with requests that would sound silly to anyone else if we spoke them aloud.

I told God that I was worried about paying my bills and that I missed living in a place where I could watch the sunrise.

And one week later, he reminded me that my prayers do not fall on deaf ears.  

Chasing after Jesus is not an easy call. It asks you daily to abandon your comfort zone, the things that the world tells you are valuable, and step out in faith, trusting that the One who made you will lead you where you are meant to go. Sometimes all you can do is cry out God I got out of the boat and I need you to not let me sink.

And oh man, does he ever come through.

So now each day, I will sit in my car and drink coffee and watch the sun rise as I drive to work, and I will remember all that God has done for me. I will happily sit through two or three lights at the intersection of the highways and watch as light begins to dance across the morning sky.

I am here to tell you that God is good. I am here to declare boldly that God’s plans for our lives do not often make sense from the outside, but he is working and weaving together something beautiful that we can scarcely imagine.

I am here to tell you that life is strange and sometimes trusting God means that money will be in short supply and that you’ll have to confront all those confusing things that you’ve shoved deep into a closet somewhere in your brain and that all you can do is cling to the knowledge that he has not left you abandoned. All I know is that grace has brought me safe this far, that grace will lead me home.

I’m here to tell you that the promises of God find their Yes in him, through him, and our Amen is spoken to the Glory of God. (2 Cor. 1:20)

I’m here to tell you about unspeakable joy. Selah.

 

Joyfully,

Alice

Winning Friends and Influencing People: On Community

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I’ve been thinking a lot about community these days, about what it takes to be a true friend and supporter to someone else. Because we live in a world where it’s easy to feel connected to a lot of people without ever actually having to know them personally. We scroll through a news feed from time to time, glance through curated photos of a person’s life. That’s the beauty of the internet, being able to build connections, learn from people regardless of how close in proximity our lives would otherwise be.

It’s changed the way we think of pen pals. There are still some of us who write handwritten letters and trudge down the street to drop them in a mailbox to be sent somewhere across the world, but the number is certainly dwindling. More on that another day. But the rise of online connections has created an entirely new category of long distance friendship, the pen pals of the twenty-first century. There are people we know online that we consider true friends, despite the fact that our ‘real’ lives have never actually crossed paths. There are people we’ve never met that we put more effort into communicating with than the people we actually see and spend time with. As someone who’s had snail mail pen pals for the better part of two decades, I get it. That kind of friendship is real and valid and has a lot of value. But I think we sometimes forget we need to put effort into our real-world relationships too.

This culture of loose connections has made it easier than ever to drop out of people’s lives without realizing it. We still see the photos, read the tweets, but don’t actually spend the face-to-face time we would have if we weren’t tethered together by a news feed. It gives the illusion of friendship, but without paying attention it can become a slow fade into no longer attempting to communicate. And it becomes a tragic façade of a relationship.

It’s allowed for the rise of ‘ghosting,’ in which someone stops communicating without warning, falling off the edge of the map never to be seen or heard from again, as though a person had been talking to a ghost the entire time. It still strikes me as odd that it happens as frequently as it does. And every time I hear about it happening, I wonder how we got this way. How have we slid so far as to accept the idea that we can just opt out of relationships and hard conversations we don’t want to have?

The thing about relationships (of any kind) is that while there’s a lot of joy to be found, they’re also a lot of hard work. Investing in someone is never easy, and there’s always a chance of getting hurt. That’s what makes vulnerability terrifying, especially if you’ve been hurt before. And sometimes it feels like it’s easier to push people away as they start to get too close to really knowing us rather than risk exposing something that might scare them off anyway. Because at least it’s a controlled burn, then.

But fading into the background isn’t a viable option if we want to keep people in our lives. We can’t take one another for granted because the reality is that humans are not knitting projects; you can’t just drop them in the corner and expect that they’ll be waiting for you the next time you’ve got some spare time and are looking for something to do. They’ll move on, find new places to spend time, find new people who will stay.

We have to show up, send the text, reach out again and again. Because life happens. Things get hectic, and time gets away from us. But we have a responsibility to be there for our people. And at the end of the day, there is no real excuse for not supporting the ones who matter to us.

We have to prioritize one another. The thing about time is that nobody has any more or less of it. Yes, we each have different demands on our time, but busyness is a trap that convinces us it’s okay to apologize for being absent and tell people we miss them but then make no real effort to spend time with them. Action matters.

If there are people you need to go see, please do that. Send a message; make a plan and show up for it. Sacrificing deep, meaningful relationships in favor of a broad assortment of acquaintances is not a healthy solution. We can’t be everything to everyone, and we desperately need people who will see us for who we are and love us because of (and in spite of) ourselves.

I say this having found people who care deeply about me, who check in regularly to ask not only about the events of my life, but also my emotional and spiritual well-being. It’s beautiful and challenging and sometimes more than a little uncomfortable. But it’s necessary; it’s valuable. And while there are days when I’d rather not be honest about what’s going on in my heart and my brain, I’m always glad afterward. It’s a privilege to be able to pray, laugh, cry, and dream alongside these humans as we wrestle through what it looks like to live well and chase after Christ.

I wrote a Real Talk Tuesday about something similar a few weeks ago, and it’s been stuck in my head ever since:

“I'm part of a small group doing a study on discipleship this summer, and last week the question was posed to us about how our priorities should be shaped by the knowledge that being created in God's image means we are made for relationship. As I thought about it in the days leading up to our meeting, I wrote down the words "community is our calling." Because that's it. We are made by love, for love. Despite our cultural obsession with individuality and independence, we can't fly solo. If we're going to make it out sane or with any measure of fulfillment, we have to look past ourselves.”

Friends, community is a get-to, not a have-to. It’s meant to be a gift, not a chore. Let’s not settle for the surface. Dive in deep with your people and keep showing up for them. It’s one of the most sacred, wonderful things you can do.

 

Joyfully,

Alice

For the Rest of Us: On Not Fitting into Boxes (Part 2)

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I want to start this post the same way that I started the last one: “I am a liberal Christian woman with giftings that lean in the direction of teaching and prophetic wisdom, and that doesn’t always go over well in the church. I have preached to groups of men and women and have taught seminars on prayer. God equipped me with words for those situations beyond anything I could have ever imagined. I have been blessed to find community that is incredibly supportive of this and has challenged me to grow immensely in these areas over the past couple of years. But this has not always been the case.

 You see, I don’t fit into the tidy little box that much of the mainstream North American church has constructed for young Christian women…

…The church I grew up in was, and remains, quite conservative on many matters, including women in leadership. It was just a passive understanding that most people held. Even as a child and young teenager it didn’t sit quite right with me, as I had a sense that my gifts didn’t seem to line up with the church’s position on the role of women, but I never openly questioned it. After all, it was never said with any kind of malice, but it was stated as just a matter of fact. So I quietly wondered how I was supposed to affect change in my church community if my voice was seen as an unwelcome, unbiblical intrusion rather than a valued contribution. It was discouraging, but because I didn’t know any different, because I had never heard a woman get up and preach a fiery sermon on a Sunday morning, because I had never seen a woman allowed to be an elder, I thought that it was just something I would have to accept.”

A couple of weeks ago, I talked a bit about this concept in relation to my experience as a single woman in the church, and how that doesn’t fit very well with the traditional marriage-and-children structure that tends to be the accepted norm. I received so many wonderful responses from the people that read it, and it just affirms to me how many incredible people I have in my life, and how God is working to refine my missional calling.

This is the second part of the series, and it may be a little more difficult to read. My hope is that you read it even if (perhaps especially if) it makes you a little uncomfortable.

Back in January, I read a statement that John Piper released in response to a question about whether women should be allowed to serve as professors in seminaries, and was quite disheartened by what I saw. Now, I wasn’t surprised by John Piper’s obvious expression of his complementarian worldview (or patriarchal, if you prefer – the term ‘complementarian’ only came about a couple of decades ago when people started to realize that saying you believed in holding onto patriarchy, wasn’t cool); it’s a well-known fact about him. He believes that God’s design is for men to be the spiritual leaders and teachers, that this is how the world should work. But his words stirred up a lot of feelings and questions and past experiences that I haven’t been able to shake off since then.

In his post, Piper explicitly stated that “it’s not a question of competence” in reference to a woman’s capacity to teach and take similar leadership roles in the church, which is so problematic. Because every time a prominent pastor like Piper makes a statement like this, it undermines the work of so many incredible godly women. When “it’s not a question of competence” keeping women out of teaching roles, which indicates an understanding that they have the brains and words to be able to teach, what we are talking about is a question of which reproductive organs a person is born with – and that is blatantly sexist.

It still comes as a surprise to many that I am quite feisty and have no problem sharing my thoughts and voicing concerns when they arise. Because I present as quiet and gentle – things which are good and true parts of my identity – some assume that I am shy or unwilling to speak out, and it's caused quite a stir on multiple occasions when that perception has been broken. The truth is that I don't waste words; I'm not someone who talks just for the sake of it, but I believe that there is no excuse for staying silent on the things that matter.

This 'complementarian' worldview has meant that I (and countless others) have had valid concerns dismissed as whining, had my offers of help in ways I'm qualified criticized as an overbearing saviour complex. And I've been told explicitly and implicitly that I should speak less so that men can have the floor. It's caused hurt and meant that I've wrestled with my place in the church and parachurch ministries for years.

But over the last couple of years, God has taught me a lot about stepping out in freedom, and the ways in which his kingdom is radically different than the way we like to organize our earthly endeavours. He has been working hard on refining my speaking and teaching gifts, slowly but surely clarifying the calling placed on my life. He led me into an undergraduate history program, despite the fact that I never intended it as a field of study, and used it to plant me in community and build up an invaluable skillset in historical research and analysis.

Here's where I pull out that degree. The Bible is the inspired Word of God. Full stop. The Bible is a historical document that needs to be studied and interpreted with historical context in mind. Full stop. Those two things are not mutually exclusive. And when we approach the intersection where our theology meets matters that directly affect the lives of those in the church, it is imperative that we hold these two things in tension.

People lean on snippets from the writings of Paul to justify keeping women out of leadership positions in the church, but they forget that the context he lived and wrote in is not the context we live in today. Yes, the Bible is for us, but it was not written to us directly. We are not the first-century church in Corinth. So to jump straight from "what's on the page" to "how can we apply this living in North America in 2018" is often problematic and leaves out so much of the nuance that we have to consider. Questions about the cultural and social context, and the perspective and intent of the author need to be asked before we can jump to any kind of application. In the case of Paul, he was writing to address specific situations in specific churches, and also commended women who were prominent leaders in their local churches. But we have to take a holistic look at his life and ministry to understand his perspective and his true vision for the church.

Having just passed Easter, I've been reminded once again of the beauty that lies in Christ's ministry and the small decisions he made that honoured the dishonourable, the poor and vulnerable, the untouchable. The first people to see the resurrected Christ were women; they were the first preachers of the Good News, handed the responsibility to go and tell the disciples that Jesus had conquered death. In a time when women were not allowed to hold religious office, this was a groundbreaking moment that nobody could have imagined. Here we find this beautiful example of the ways in which Christ's life and ministry dismantles the status quo and reminds us that the divisions we create are not his heart for us.

It breaks my heart to see the places where we fall into the trap of believing that the reality we see is God's heart for us. And we do it all the time. Patriarchy was a result of sin, not God's original design for humanity, but because we have lived with its existence for so long, we start to believe that it's the way God wants it to be. But we cannot sit actionless in that mindset; it is dangerous to us all.

You see, I subscribe to the wildly controversial position that because men and women are both made in the image of God and are equally capable of knowing him, they are equally qualified to speak on matters of spiritual significance. I believe firmly that God has gifted us all uniquely to make up the Body of Christ in all its diversity, and that the gifts of the spirit are not limited to one gender or another. And I think that to disregard the teaching gifts of half of the body of Christ, or to limit them to only using them amongst each other, is damaging to relationships as well as theology.

In the aftermath of the Piper fiasco, I saw one tweet that particularly upset me. It said something to the effect of "if your 'calling' as a woman includes anything involving having teaching authority over men, then it's not from God." Oof. I understand the desire to hold fast to biblical truth – I will never dispute that for a moment. But to so brashly disregard the idea that a woman could have anything of spiritual value to teach a man seems archaic at its best. To suggest in this way that someone has completely misinterpreted what they believe to be the divine calling on their life implies that the person's entire relationship with God is misplaced, or worse, that they are a false prophet deliberately trying to lead people astray. And to have that spoken over you stings.

When I was growing up, my church held firmly to complementarian doctrine. Men were the preachers, the teachers, the elders. Women cooked for potlucks, decorated for Christmas, and sometimes taught children's Sunday School classes. But when these doctrines are just the norm, without any obvious anger or malice spoken into them, it makes it hard to step away from them. To grow up with everyone around you holding the same understanding, at least openly, that a woman's place is in the children's ministry (and not beyond) makes you question whether you're overreacting or just plain wrong when you start to wonder about your place there and how your gifts line up with the teachings of the church. That’s what it did for me, anyway.

This discussion might be making you feel a little uncomfortable, and some variation on "men and women are equal, but they're just different and have different roles" might be rolling through your mind. But before jumping into the comments section to share that sentiment, know that I've heard it all before. That's the doctrine I grew up hearing. And you know what it sounds a lot like? The doctrine of 'separate but equal,' just wearing a different hat, and segregation is fundamentally about reinforcing inequality, no matter what the explicitly stated intentions are.

“And the more I hear teaching from teams of godly men AND women, the more I fall in love with Jesus and the beautiful diversity that exists within his kingdom.”

I know that not every church, not ever ministry holds this complementarian view; it just happens that I've had some close-to-home experiences with ones that do. And the more I hear teaching from teams of godly men AND women, the more I fall in love with Jesus and the beautiful diversity that exists within his kingdom. I am so blessed to know people who speak the truth with love and conviction and who point me towards Christ, who are walking reminders that all of us must exercise discernment and wisdom as we step out into ministry, whether that looks like becoming pastors, parents, overseas missionaries, or stepping into a 'regular' secular 9-5 job. Because the reality is that we are in ministry wherever we go. Our lives are called to point to Christ with words and actions no matter who we are or what jobs we currently hold.

So let’s jump forward. The big takeaway of all this is not to simply stir up controversy and run away, but to create space for conversation. I personally believe that it's a no-brainer, that qualified men and women should both be given the opportunity to lead and to speak on spiritual matters. And I also know that I'm not going to change centuries of church tradition with a couple of blog posts. But we need to realize that our institutions can do a massive amount of hurt by insisting that first-century gender norms must be adhered to two thousand years later, without ever considering whether in our efforts to carry out the mandate of God, we have missed the point entirely. We need to be willing to wrestle through hard conversations. We need to take the time to realize that expecting everyone in the church to fit into an idealized family structure alienates those who have not yet, or may never reach that season of life. And for the love of all that is good, we need to stop assuming that every eighteen-year-old girl's one and only aspiration is to get married and have children.

And to the ones who feel like they don’t ‘fit’: regardless of how life in the church can sometimes feel, there is a place and a purpose for you - it's speaking God's truth in love. It's chasing after your Creator with abandon and opening your hands and heart to say ‘yes’ to wherever he leads. And it’s stepping boldly into your calling, into those places where your gifts can be used for the glory of the God who sees and knows and loves you fully.

Keep seeking. Keep loving. Keep trusting God. He’s the one who gives you purpose anyway.

 

Joyfully,

Alice