Sunday, March 29, 2015

Confessions of a Failed Evangelist

I've been praying everyday for 10 months that the Lord would give me the privilege of seeing a person come to faith.

I don't have the gift of evangelism--that's a fact. But sometimes I let that fact become an excuse, and I stop looking for opportunities. What's worse is that I can start to ignore God's call and diminish God's work in my own life by convincing myself that I don't have to share my faith, because, you know, I'm not an evangelist. Then I remember that I don't have the gift of giving either, yet I'm still called to tithe.

Many of you know that David and I struggled with infertility, and that we consider our boys to be miracles. But during those years of waiting and praying for a child, we knew that there was something wrong! Why? Because when things are working right, when a husband and wife are both healthy, and when there are no efforts made to prevent pregnancy, then reproduction happens. And when it doesn't, it causes pain, suffering, and grief.

In the same way, disciples of Jesus are meant to reproduce. It should be a natural outgrowth of a healthy and maturing faith. Life, both physical and spiritual, was designed for fruitfulness and multiplication.

For years, (even decades!) I have had a sadly sterile faith. For many years I was happy to go about my own personal spiritual growth and about the training and formation of other believers. I could help people go deeper in their faith or farther in their walk. Which is fun. But then I noticed that those around me, though mature in their Christianity, were also sterile. Not only did I not bear spiritual children, but those I was leading were also not bearing spiritual children.

I hunkered down inside the cozy walls of the church and consoled myself with all the good work I was doing. I delighted in my growing Biblical knowledge and my faithful spiritual practices. Meanwhile, I found myself deeper and deeper in the bubble, surrounded by insiders. I focused on training and equipping leaders and building ministry teams. I ran programs and lead Bible studies. And those are good things. But I didn't have a burden for the lost, I felt mildly  annoyed by the idea--like they were tedious projects to which I should attend rather than lost sheep who were helpless and harassed.

What I failed to consider is the possibility that there was something unhealthy, unwhole, about a sterile faith. I liked to believe that I could be a perfectly healthy disciple even if I didn't have any spiritual kids.

Then a really funny thing happened. I became a missionary.

Missionaries are sort of obligated to evangelize It's the main point, after all. So I became interested in sharing my faith. This may have had something to do with the fact that I wanted to have exciting news to write in newletters. It wasn't a lot, but it was all I had to offer. God began to work with my loaves and fishes of mediocre desire, until deep down, I became convinced that I was made to reproduce. My apathy melted away and was replaced by an emerging yearning to see people meet Jesus.

As I fell in love with a country and a language and a people group, I began to ache for their lost-ness. I made freinds with unbelievers and saw the depth of their beauty and the tragedy of their brokenness. But caring did not suddenly make me successful at sharing my faith. It did give me the push I needed to begin to study techniques, to learn from experts, and to take some risks.

Then, ten months ago a challenge was issued. Ironically, I was the one who issued the challenge. With a group of fifty French Christian leaders who had been listening to global experts teach about discipleship, I heard Steve Smith say that Jesus only asks two things of his disciples: to fish and to follow. And so we encouraged everyone in the group to pair up with an accountability partner and once a month ask each other, "How have you fished?" and "How have you followed?"

The accountability piece was key for me. I'm a pretty good follower most of the time, but just knowing someone was going to ask about my witness helped me to keep the idea of "fishing" in the forefront of my mind.

And still I failed.

I failed to share my faith. I failed to find new unbelieving friends. I failed to reproduce. But my prayers grew more fervent. Each month I felt sad for not having shared my faith--not guilty, mind you. But sad. I became healthily critical of my own unhealthy routines, my justification, and my weaknesses. I admitted that I needed help. I begged God to change me, to lead me, to use me. I did not see any change in my results, but significant change my desire. Even though the longing for spiritual children went unfulfilled, I began to realize that I'd rather live with the unmet longing than quench it with apathy. Awakening the desire was the first indication of healing.

Still, ten months of desperate praying can lead one to despair.

"Lord," I pray each day, "Give me a heart to share your love and grace with those around me and, if it is your will, the joy of seeing one who is lost be found."

Oh yes, it is his will.

This week I began an evangelistic Bible study with a new acquaintance. She is open to the things of God. She is eager to know more. And I wonder if in her I might see this prayer answered. The funny thing is, I don't want it answered for what it will do for me. I want it answered because I love my friend. And I'm keenly aware of how little this opportunity has to do with me, and how much it is the evidence of God's grace. After months of praying, I have not become some super-duper witness. In most ways, I'm still a failed evangelist. But I'm failed evangelist who prays. A failed evangelist who hopes. A failed evangelist who dares to ask God for spiritual children, that his kingdom might grow and that his glory might fill the earth. I can't produce spiritual fruit of any kind. But I do, sometimes, get the privilege of bearing the fruit that God produces.

Now I see a bud on the tree, and I can hardly wait to see what God will do.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Ten Totally Trivial Tidbits

  1.  It's Spring Break for George Fox students! Which means I get to step back from my studies and focus on some other things for a week. My focus this week? I've been seeking inspiration for the Easter sermon I'll be preaching, working on messages for a women's retreat in May, and catching up on e-mails that had been neglected for almost a month. 
  2. But if you think that Miss Jenn is all work and no play, you're sadly mistaken. Play is my middle name! Okay. Not really. My middle name is Ann. Without an E. And contrary to Anne Shirley, I like it like that! But I digress....How am I playing this week you ask? Well, I've crocheted a little poncho for a little girl, I'm reading some delightful mysteries (Masie Dobbs, if you must know), and I'm baking chocolate chip cookies. And eating them. I'm most definitely eating them. 
  3. Chandler has officially sent off his applications to three medical schools in France. Of course, he still has to pass his Bac, which is no small task! But in the Fench system, one can go directly from High School to medical school; there is no need for a Bachelor's degree. It will still take about 8 years, or the equivalent of a Bachelor's plus an M.D., and even more if Chandler sticks with his plan to become a surgeon. It's just that the studies are focused on medicine right from the start.
  4. David is itching to fly, but so far has not had much opportunity. Because he is not employed--just a contract worker, he must be hired directly by people who want to go somewhere using the air-taxi service with which he is associated. Though he is on a list of preferred pilots, without knowing any of the regular customers, it's hard to get chosen for a flight. Please pray for some open doors.
  5. I've been sleeping like a champ the past few weeks. Most people would consider that good news. I consider it a sign that my thyroid levels are out of whack. 
  6. I have such a hard time dressing myself this time of year. No, no. Not the physical act of donning clothes! That's not a problem! Rather, I don't know what to wear when the calendar says it's spring, but the weather screams winter, winter, winter. 
  7. Someone recently asked for a recent family photo. The impossibility of fulfilling that request made me sad. I'm really missing Graham. And as you may have seen on facebook, Graham's really missing half his hair. I figure it's practice for when the balding gene trickles down to him from his grandpa Burris. 
  8. Good News! Great News! Over-the-top-exciting News! We finally know the French city to which we will be relocating this summer. And...I'm not gonna tell you! I know. I'm such a tease. We're working on getting a newsletter out in the next few days with all the details. But here's a photographic hint:
  9. So here's something that happens to me ALL the time these days when I travel. I introduce myself, and people eventually ask if I have children. Then I tell them I have two boys, and I give their ages. Then, all of the people in the room gasp in amazment, saying something like, "That's not possible! You look much too young to have children that old!" And then I smile and say, "Wow. That just made my day!" But then I wonder why it makes me so happy to appear so young. Pretty superficial really. 
  10. Daffodils are blooming in my backyard, and as the official flower of the diabetes association, they always make me think of my sister Sharon, who died 18 years ago from complications of diabetes. She loved daffodils.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

How God Rescued My Family

Last week I told you how we have been ruined--how God has so challenged and changed us that we will never, ever, be the same. Much of the ruining came through struggle, and I mentioned that we have wounds that may never heal. This statement was shocking to some, yet, I do not see it as entirely negative. Even the resurrected Christ, though fully alive, still bore scars on his hands and his side. To be ruined is to be just a little bit more like Jesus, and as one of my favorite cousins remarked, "I pray that I be ruined for Christ also. Nothing else satisfies." Indeed. Nothing else. 

But in many ways, ruining us was also a way of rescuing us. He has not rescued us from embarrassment or sickness or financial ruin. All of those he has allowed us to bear to some extent. Instead he has rescued us from complacency, from superficiality, and from autonomy. He has rescued us from the rat race, from keeping up with the Joneses, and from envy. He has rescued us from ourselves. And he keeps on rescuing us as we follow him each day.

This rescue has little to do with moving to France, though that happened to be part of the rescue mission that God used in our lives. God’s rescue has much to do with surrender, and being willing to leave those things in life that appear to be friendly but in reality, are hostile. Hostile to God’s kingdom, hostile to God’s people, and hostile to God’s plan. They’re subtle little buggers, and probably take a different form for each person, but I’m sure they exist in your life, too.

How can you tell if you have dangerous liaisons? Do you hold anything back from God? If you do, that thing has a hold on you and you need to be freed from it. Do you cherish self-righteousness or indignation? I know I do. But God is showing me that these emotional pacifiers are wicked cancers from which I need to be rescued. Do you live like a Lone Ranger, taking care of yourself and proud of it?  This type of independence is at odds with God’s call to interdependence. You need a rescue.

I loved my autonomy, until God rescued me by placing me in a community. I was driven to achieve personal success, until God showed me that building his kingdom was much more enjoyable than building my kingdom. I was firm in my understanding of things like politics and economics, until God rescued me from my own world-view to show me his world-view. Now I’m more confused than ever about how to vote, but more sure than ever about how to live.

God rescues us because we can’t rescue ourselves. But his way of rescue rarely looks like the primrose path. The way out of our own lost-ness is often a way that is fraught with thorns and mud puddles. The rescue wagon appears unsafe, and many will call you crazy for getting on board. But in the upside-down kingdom of the servant king, I promise that his rescue is worth it. 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

How God Ruined Our Family

In one of my classes we are reading through the book Water from a Deep Well by Gerry Sittser. It is a book that examines various expressions of faith throughout the history of the church and discusses the relevance of certain practices for the church today. In the chapter on Martyrs Sittser reminds the reader of how many of our forefathers and foremothers paid the ultimate price for their faith, suffering death for their refusal to renounce Christ. Still today, we have Christian brothers and sisters around the globe who face the same destiny. These people bear great suffering that is thrust upon them from unwanted sources.

But in another chapter Sittser talks about the Desert Fathers and Mothers. These were people who pursued a more challenging life in order to grow in their knowledge of Christ. Their suffering was, for the most part, chosen. And so Sittser asks the question, “Would it ever be right to choose to struggle?”

My gut response is, “Who needs to choose it? It comes knocking regularly!”

But really, it doesn’t. We are creatures of comfort, seeking ease and entertainment through every moment of the day. A slow line at the grocery store can seem to us like Chinese water torture. Traffic is endured as if we were letting blood. Our team loses the Super Bowl and we are plunged into despair. I think we have forgotten how to struggle. We have lost sight of the value of struggle. One of the desert fathers, Abba John, said, “Fighting is good for the soul.” He was talking about the struggles, both inside and outside, that turn us to Jesus and make us strong.

Most of us (myself included) spend our lives trying to figure out how to avoid struggle. And when we do struggle, the goal is to get out of trouble as fast as possible rather than trusting the Spirit to do his slow and faithful work in us through the struggle. We want out of the struggle more than we want the transformation that the struggle can bring. Oh, but the flesh dies slowly. And it dies in the struggle, not in escaping from the struggle.

In the midst of reading this chapter by Sittser, I was in the States with my two boys, Graham—a freshman in college, and Chandler—a senior in high school. As I spent some intense mother/son time with these two amazing guys, I became overtaken by a deep grief. Through our conversations and experiences, it gradually dawned on me how steep a price they each have paid for David and I having been called to France. Yes, there have been positives—bunches of them. And because we like to avoid pain, we have focused on those positives. They are real, and we are grateful. But they aren’t the only reality. The other truth—the harder truth, is that Graham and Chandler have struggled and suffered.

They are ruined.

Yes, I know, this has become quite the “catch phrase” for the fad of being “missional.” People talk about being “ruined” like they got a new tattoo. It is not so simple. Those who are truly ruined rarely brag about it. It hurts too much. It cost too much. And even saying it aloud sounds trivial to those who have actually lived it.

Ruined is not fun. It is not cute. It is not stylish.

It means that you have been broken in places that may never heal, so you have to learn to live into grace for every breath of life. It means that you will be misunderstood by almost everyone you know, so you have to cling to Jesus like he’s the only friend you’ve got. It means that life as you once knew it can never be your reality again, and so you choose to die to yourself again and again and again because it’s your only hope for life.

David and I chose this struggle. But our boys did not have the choice. And yet….

And yet they are learning to let the mess of their lives be turned into works of art for the glory of their king. There is nothing fake about them, for truly ruined people don’t have the luxury of masks or assumed identities. They are raw and fragile and genuine and strong.

We are a ruined family. And I while I have no doubt that we were right to follow God’s call to France, I would be sadly missing much of the point of this call if I did not acknowledge the struggle. What all this means is that obedience to Christ is expensive, and I’m not just talking about finances. True discipleship costs us our lives and even the lives of our children. True discipleship does not mean being spared from the flames. It means trusting in a God who brings beauty from ashes. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015


While in the States, I had the privilege of meeting with a small group of women who had recently done some short-term mission work in Ethiopia. They were struggling to readapt to life back in the States, and felt a deep longing to return to Africa.

But I actually don’t think that they were longing for Africa. I think they were longing for heaven. Let me explain.

When we leave our home—our place of origin, and go to a place where language and culture are different—we get a glimpse of the greatness of the world that God SO loves. When the smells are foreign, and the clothing is foreign, and the faces and sights and sounds are foreign, we become aware of the fact that we are “other.” We experience what it means to be a stranger.

But then when we return to our place of origin, we have been irreversibly changed by our travels abroad, and suddenly we feel like strangers in our own home. We no longer think as we thought before. We no longer feel what we felt before. Even the words that come from our own mouth suddenly sound strange to our own ears. At that moment, in the place where we feel “other” in our own context, it is easy to imagine that the problem is one of location. “The answer is getting back to Ethiopia, where at least I expect to feel like an outsider.” Only you are “other” there too.

And so I’ve come to the conclusion that spending time in a foreign country—not as a tourist, but as one who seeks to understand and engage the culture—awakens in us a heavenly homing device. One that makes us keenly aware that we are no longer able to feel at home in the world. One that reminds us that we are strangers on the earth, destined for life with the Father. We long for a home that has no earthly address. And we accept our place as sojourners, travelers, pilgrims, aliens.

 In preparing to meet with these women, I asked Chandler, “After almost 5 years in France, what have you learned about what it means to live as a stranger?” His answer was profound. I am still learning from it. He said, without even a pause for reflection, “When you live as a stranger, you don’t expect people to understand you. Instead, you decide to do your best to understand others.”

Chandler realizes that those who have not been where he has been cannot be expected to understand what he understands. He, on the other hand, has the privilege of living in both worlds. Chandler may never be able to explain Root Beer to a French kid, but he can learn about what French kids drink. And from there a friendship can blossom.

The deep gift here is that when you live as a stranger, you know that you don’t know. So it’s easy to take the role of student. When you live as a citizen, it’s easy to assume that you DO know, and so sometimes you don’t work as hard at understanding others.

As citizens of heaven, we are called to take on the role of student, to seek to understand others and not assume that we know. Paul said that to the Greek he became Greek, to the Jew he became Jewish. He sought to understand a person and a culture before he presented the Gospel. This was not just an evangelistic strategy, it was a means of showing love and honor to those whom he was called to reach.

One final note. There may be those who think that I am insinuating that having multi-cultural experience makes one “better” or “holier” than others. I am not. There may be others who would insist that they can fully know or understand these ideas without multi-cultural experience. I would not agree with that assertion either. I would not agree because I know that someone who has fought cancer or lost a child or climbed a mountain has certainly experienced something about God and faith that I cannot understand.

God is working to shape each of us into the image of Christ, and he tailors each person’s transformation process to each person’s character, needs, and deficiencies. We must refute the idea that we can all know and understand the same things about God or that we can control the mystery of the sanctification process. We can’t. So we must strive to fully engage where God is leading us and then depend joyfully on the body of Christ. We can’t know it all and experience it all, but God has given us himself and each other so that we might know the fullness of Christ. It’s not a contest. It’s futile to play the comparison game. God is at work in each of us. Let’s trust him. 

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Where were we?

Well, now, where were we?

It's been over a month since my last post, and I hadn't intended to take a break at all! But somehow I lost touch these past few weeks, flitting across the globe. I hardly know where to begin to catch you up.

The truth is, I've had one of those months where mission and ministry took over, and in the midst of all that super spiritual work I lost my spiritual center. No, I'm not talking about a crisis of belief; but rather, a crisis of connection. How easy it is to get get swept up in the activity and lose the very reason for it all.

I was not any busier on the road than I am here at home, but I was out of my context and consequently I lost touch with my rhythms: Rhythms of prayer...rhythms of rest...rhythms of reading the Bible...rhythms of silence...rhythms of running. There is no excuse for not taking my rhythms with me, no excuse for being overtaken by the business of Christian work. It just happened.

I'd like to say that now that I'm home, I can pick right up where I left off. Sadly, it doesn't work that way. Sure, the Lord is gracious and ready to speak to me in prayer, but I have lost my stamina. I can head out to the track, but the miles won't come easily anymore. I'll have lost my capacity to go the distance.

But that doesn't mean I won't start again.

The good news of the Christian life is that we can always start again. And the rhythms will work their way back into my regime, calling me out, taking me further, renewing my strength for the journey.

Until then, I'll be limping along, relearning the basics. I'm not too proud to go back to the beginning, even if it is tempting to put on my good missionary face and act like everything's fine. I'm grateful to be reminded how easy it is to fall away and how difficult it is to start again. Next time, perhaps I'll pack more wisely. Next time, I'll plan to take my rhythms on the road with me.