9 Simple Prayers to Reset Your Stressed Heart

As I composed an email to my editor asking for an extension because I don’t have time to write this article right now, I felt a little hitch in my spirit: “Now is the perfect time to write it.” And it is, but it’s also hard. It’s hard because the topic of this article has ...

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As I composed an email to my editor asking for an extension because I don’t have time to write this article right now, I felt a little hitch in my spirit: “Now is the perfect time to write it.” And it is, but it’s also hard. It’s hard because the topic of this article has become particularly relevant to me in the here and now.

My youngest child, Bobby, has been in the hospital for the past four days and was really sick before that—a spinal abscess/bad infection resulting from a medical procedure he had nearly two weeks ago. Also, a friend of mine recently lost her 22-year-old son in a tragic incident.

As I sit here watching my 18-year-old son in pain and try to translate the medical terminology and draw conclusions from what the doctors tell me, I am exhausted. I’m afraid, because I just witnessed the unthinkable happen to someone I know, and I realize none of us is immune from tragedy. I’m relieved that the doctors determined what was making my son so sick and have been able to get a handle on the pain. I’m grateful that I’m able to be here with him. There are plenty of blessings in the midst of it all—but it is, to put it simply, difficult.

And though I don’t know what each of you are facing—it may be something huge and tragic or relatively small but still thought-consuming and important to you—I know that we all have stress in our lives. And we need a way to reset our hearts when life is rough.

These simple prayers that have brought me peace in the past, so I hope you will pray along with me as I ask the Lord to bring me peace in the present.

1. Thank You.

Psalm 100:4 (NIV) says, “Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name.”

When we start by giving thanks, it is a way to step into the presence of the Almighty. We remember all that He has done and all the times He has intervened in situations in the past. We are reminded that He is the giver of all good gifts and that He works all things for the good of those who love Him. We see that, even when things are difficult, there are still bountiful gifts all around, if we will just look for them. And when we recount those gifts and share our gratitude, it deepens our faith and brings us closer to the Lord.

2. Let me see You.

God is always with us. I know that, and yet I often find myself praying for Him to be with me. What I am really asking is for God to be visible, for His presence to somehow be tangible—through the words others speak to me, the words of the Bible, a song. or a blog post, or the arms of a friend who holds me when I’m sad.

Because even though my head knows that God is there, my heart sometimes needs to be convinced. Praying this way reminds me that He is right here with me, whether I see Him or not.

3. You are God; nothing is too hard for You.

Sometimes the best way to put things into the proper perspective is to remember who God is and to remind ourselves who we are not. Our God is capable and all-knowing. He is above all, through all, and in all. He is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. All things are in His hands, which means they are not in mine. I have some responsibility—to pray and do whatever the Holy Spirit directs me to do—but there is much I cannot change.

As a control freak, that’s a difficult concept for me, but the truth is that nothing surprises, shocks, or devastates God. He’s got this. And if I believe He is all the things He says He is—well, then, the best thing I can do is cease my bumbling attempts to control the outcome and, instead, place the situation into His supremely capable hands. It takes the pressure off of me and puts it onto Him, the only One who can truly effect the outcome.

This is probably why one of my favorite verses is, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10, NIV).

4. I believe; help my unbelief.

Part of the reason we feel such stress is that we hold conflicting views. We have faith and we struggle with doubts. Or we want to believe God will change things for us, but we’re not seeing it yet. This conflict goes way back. In Mark 9:24 (NKJV), a man cries, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” What this verse tells us is that faith and doubt can exist together and that God is the One who can reconcile those things. It’s normal to have questions or doubts, and it doesn’t mean that our faith is weak. All it means is that it’s time to turn to God and trust Him to strengthen our faith.

5. I’m sorry, Lord.

You may be a much nicer, less temperamental soul than I am, but when I’m stressed, I get crabby. Think Oscar the Grouch. In trying situations, I don’t always respond with grace and kindness. When this is the case, the best thing we can do is ask God to forgive us—and know that He will.

Because He forgives us, we can forgive others. Hurt feelings and fractured relationships compound our stress, but a simple prayer asking God to forgive us frees us to move forward and try again.

6. When I am weak, You are strong.

Rather than lamenting the fact that I am weak, when I whisper these words to the Lord I am rejoicing because this is another opportunity for God to shine. It’s another chance for people in my life to see the Lord at work and another time during which God is glorified. I may not be able to fix things—that’s in God’s hands. But when I lean on Him, seek shelter in His arms, and acknowledge my relative strengths and abilities, other people will see the power of faith and the blessings of living a life rooted in Him, even if I don’t say a word.

Perhaps they will see what it means to have a relationship with the Lord and want to find that comfort for themselves. I don’t need to be ashamed of my weakness, but since our God is a loving Father, His help is one of many gifts He longs to give to us.

7. Be my Comforter.

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4, NIV).

That’s a mouthful and takes some mental deciphering—but it boils down to this: we can be assured that God will comfort us and through that, we will in turn be able to comfort others. Asking God to be your comfort is a simple prayer, but one with great power.

8. Teach me, God.

Jesus promised, “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:26, NIV). The Holy Spirit longs to teach us, and oftentimes the most stressful situations are the ones in which we have the opportunity to learn the most profound lessons. Ask the Lord to use this opportunity to help you grow closer to Him and stronger in your faith—as long as you’re willing to let Him teach you.

9. Thank You, Lord.

Thankfulness is a great way to begin a conversation God—but it’s also a great way to end it. You’ve already told God some of the reasons you’re thankful; now simply praise Him for what He is about to do. He’s offered us so much; the least we can do is offer our faith and our praise right back to Him. Because:

He is good.
He is faithful.
He is with us.
He is able.
He is in control of all things, and nothing is too hard for Him.
He is God, and He loves us.
He is worthy to be praised.
Amen.

This article first appeared on Crosswalk.com.

A prayer of remembering on Mother’s Day

Dear Lord, How can I possibly celebrate Mother’s Day, when it’s a day that reminds me of all that I have lost? And yet, it’s also a reminder of all that I was given. I’ve spent the past few years carefully guarding my heart from You, Lord, because You didn’t answer my prayers the way ...

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Dear Lord,

How can I possibly celebrate Mother’s Day, when it’s a day that reminds me of all that I have lost?

And yet, it’s also a reminder of all that I was given.

I’ve spent the past few years carefully guarding my heart from You, Lord, because You didn’t answer my prayers the way I so desperately wanted you to. Now You have her and I do not, and You’re the only one who truly knows how lost I feel without her. You are a good God—always completely and totally good—but I’m afraid fully open my heart to You, afraid to be vulnerable, because what if I don’t agree with the things You declare to be “good”? Losing her doesn’t feel good to me, so now trusting You seems like a risk.

Maybe I’m acting like a temperamental toddler, stomping my foot and refusing to eat my carrots. Having a fit because I didn’t get my way. I know You cannot answer “yes” to every prayer we pray and that healing isn’t always the outcome we get. I know it’s the normal cycle of life for a mom to go before her child. I know countless people before me have lost their mothers and managed to survive. I even know that, ultimately, complete healing happens when someone goes to be with You. I feel like a whiny crybaby, but I get it. I do.

But even though I can separate myself from the situation intellectually, my emotions don’t respond to logic. Without my mom, I feel lost. Without her, I wonder who I am. Without her, I wonder who I should become.

But You recently reminded me that she’s as close as You are. I can be close to her only when I draw close to You.

So, please, Lord, help me. Let this be the time that comfort finally overshadows the pain. Don’t let my sorrow cancel out my joy. Help me celebrate Mom today. Let me hear her voice and her sense of humor, her opinions and her personality, in the voices of others today—or even in my own words.

Let me share stories about Mom that make me laugh. Help me let go of the pain and hurt feelings that go with some of them and remember that she wasn’t perfect (and neither am I). But she loved me, and she did her best—and even in her imperfection, she was pretty amazing. I am more confident, more strong, more sure of my place in the world because of the way she raised me. Many of my personality traits and interests originated in her. I am who I am—both good and bad—in large part because of her. Help me embrace that and not let sorrow keep me from remembering.

Let me love people the way Mom did. She touched so many lives beyond our immediate family. Lord, teach me to notice the needs all around me and equip me to be the help that she was to so many, and let me do it as she did: humbly, quietly, for the sake of the person in need and not about her at all. Thank You for the ways You must have nudged her to reach out, and thank You for letting generosity and nurturing and kindness be part of the legacy she left behind.

Let me be the kind of parent who teaches her kids that they are inherently lovable and valuable. As a teenager, I rebelled against everything my mom said, every rule or guideline she tried to impose. As an adult, I see that her intentions were always good and her actions were based on what she thought was best for me. She loved me enough to push me to be better.

Until I had kids of my own, I didn’t understand that kind of love. When my kids resist me, give me the strength to stand firm in my love and convictions. Let them know that I adore them for their quirks, admire their inherent characteristics, and if I have high expectations, it’s because I have the highest of beliefs in their abilities. Help me show them that my love is unconditional. It is not based on their achievements; it’s the kind of that stems from deep inside, from a place that supersedes surface achievements and behaviors.

It’s the kind of love that You offer to them, too. And to me. And to my mom. Remind me today that we are all bound together by Your phenomenal grace. We’re not as far apart as it might seem. If she is with You, and we abide with You, then we’re dwelling in the same place. We don’t have to forget who she was or let go of our memories. We can be sad if we happen to feel sad, but we can also rejoice.

Because she is with You. And we are with You. Either of those things would be worth celebrating—but both of them are true. So today, Lord, free me from the burden of my grief. Thank You for giving her to me. Thank You for loving me that much. Thank You for walking beside me, through sadness and sorrow and joy.

Thank You for the hope You have given us that we will see each other again.

Thank You for the DNA you implanted within me and for the knowledge that I carry her with me every day.

Thank You for who You are. Thank You for understanding how much I miss her. Thank You for my memories.

And thank You for this day dedicated to honoring and remembering our moms, and for all the reasons I have to celebrate and rejoice.

Amen.

This article first appeared on Crosswalk.com.

10 Ways Social Media is Hurting Your Local Church

Let’s face it—social media plays a pivotal role in nearly everything we do, so why should church be any different? If we’re honest, it isn’t. When we look closely, it’s easy to see ways in which social media can hurt our local churches and, ultimately, even our individual faith. But remember—there are two sides to ...

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Let’s face it—social media plays a pivotal role in nearly everything we do, so why should church be any different? If we’re honest, it isn’t. When we look closely, it’s easy to see ways in which social media can hurt our local churches and, ultimately, even our individual faith.

But remember—there are two sides to everything. Social media may be a saving grace to some people, particularly folks with special needs or limited mobility. Watching sermons online, supplementing your Bible study, and connecting with other people is not inherently bad; on the contrary, they can be valuable and important parts of spiritual life.

Read on and see if these statements have made their way into your own conversations (or thoughts!).

1. “Who Needs a Pastor When I Can Listen to the Most Popular, Mega-church Pastors Online?”

You can learn a lot from listening to other perspectives—they can challenge you and push you to expand your knowledge and examine your existing biases. Many of the super-popular preachers have good things to say, but your local pastor may pale by comparison if he or she isn’t as charismatic.

However, the reality is that pastoring a church isn’t just about preaching on Sunday mornings. The role of pastor is critical to an individual’s spiritual growth. We need leadership, accountability, and a personal touch—not just a handsome face to put on our website banner, but a personal shepherd. Jesus spoke to groups, but seemed to prefer direct conversations. Granted, Facebook wasn’t around then, but even if it had been, I believe Jesus would have always preferred a face-to-face connection. Similarly, a good pastor is tuned in to the needs of his congregation and community, and will address teachings that might be timely or specifically relevant.

2. “They” Make Our Church—and Christianity—Look Bad.

Remember the old saying attributed to Groucho Marx? “I wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have me as a member.” At times, we apply that mindset to church, too.

We’ve all seen it: Someone posts sanctimonious and hypocritical comments; or shares harsh, undiplomatic political views; or bashes a company or individual. And then, the next morning, they post pictures of their Bible in the slanting morning light, with the steam from their perfect cup of coffee, and then “check in” to church promptly on Sunday morning.

It’s easy to understand why someone who doesn’t attend church might be turned off. The truth is we are all ambassadors. When we claim to be Christians, people watch us to see if our behavior matches our professed beliefs. When they do not, we’re judged as hypocrites—and that damages the reputation of our local churches, not to mention that of the Church as a whole. Pay attention to what you post (and what you say, and what you believe). If it doesn’t line up with Scripture, or if it doesn’t look like Jesus, it’s best to skip it.

3. “When I Go to the Church, Half the People are on Their Phones. What’s the Point?”

It’s difficult to resist the lure of social media; our brains crave the hit of dopamine generated by likes and comments. Social media is addictive because we want instant gratification—not just 2 or 4 likes but hundreds. We want our posts to go viral for everyone to see them.

But serving God isn’t about instant gratification. Some of the most profound lessons come to us over time. We learn patience by waiting for answers. Spiritual growth comes one small step at a time. People don’t change overnight, and social media, with its immediate response time, teaches us to expect things to happen NOW. This hurts our faith and leads to our feeling forgotten when we don’t get immediate answers to our prayers.

The solution is spending time in God’s presence. Recognizing the value of companionship with the Almighty. Remembering that the cure for most things—our grief, loneliness, doubts, despair—comes when we saturate ourselves in God’s presence. Through prayer and studying the Word, the Holy Spirit speaks—and that is how things change. Not with the click of a button or application of an emoji.

4. “I Can Watch a Sermon Online Anytime. I’d Rather Sleep in on Sunday.”

I promise you, I like to sleep in as much as the next person. Probably more. Like so many of you, I’m tired. School and work (and team sports) are not really optional events, so the only activity with any flexibility is church. It’s easier not to go.

Church, though, when it operates as intended, is about so much more than the sermon. It offers relationship/fellowship. Interaction. Opportunities to share our experiences and learn from others (not just the pastor). Someone leading us into a state of worship, which we can and should do on our own, but often neglect. The Bible instructs us to meet together, and I think that is because Jesus was all about relationships. He knows we need them.

It’s easier to let online interaction substitute for the real thing. Honestly, it is. But when we settle for that, we’re cheating ourselves—and each other.

5. “I Can Join a Bible Study Online, So I’ll Just Stay Home.”

A lot of great resources are available online, and they’re a great supplement to what we can do on our own. The internet brings a plethora of information to our fingertips. We can discover more, faster. But it also means that we might spend more time reading what someone else wrote than figuring it out for ourselves, and it has been proven that information we learn on our own sticks with us longer.

The Holy Spirit can and will reveal meaning to you when you seek God, but if you’re not spending time studying the Bible on your own, you’re cheating yourself. Online Bible study has plenty to offer, but there’s something powerful about being in a room with a group of like-minded seekers that is difficult to replicate over the internet.

6. Since Social Media is Quick and Easy, Churches May Substitute Tweets for Direct Connection.

When church leadership posts to a Facebook group or sends a tweet, it can reach a large number of people quickly. The flaw in this thinking is twofold: One, sharing info online should never substitute for personally relaying important messages. And two, not everyone is on social media, so you may be alienating the elderly members of the congregation or those who cannot afford internet and large data plans.

Social media lends itself to quick dissemination of information with minimal effort on the part of the sender, so it makes sense to use it to notify people of urgent prayer requests or last-minute announcements. Sometimes, though, important things can be overlooked or buried in a sea of meaningless posts, so if an announcement or prayer request isn’t time critical, you may want to consider printing it in a bulletin or paper newsletter that can be posted on a fridge or tucked into your Bible. Don’t stop what you’re already doing, but be aware of whether it matches its intent and reaches those you need to reach.

7. “I See Enough ‘Fake News’ Already; I Can’t Deal with it From Church People,Too.”

The social media environment is rife with misunderstandings and perpetuates misinformation. Most people do not pay close attention to their language and grammar and—best-case scenario—their posts are misread or confusing. One study showed that about 70% of all articles shared were not read by the person who shared them; they simply read the headline and passed it on. This becomes problematic when the information isn’t fact-checked or assumptions are made by the reader that are not accurate.

Worst-case, is that people misinterpret Scripture, they twist a teaching to fit their life at that moment, or they use Bible verses to pat themselves on the back for their holy righteousness. And it makes the whole church look bad, while also casting doubt on everything else they share—even their testimony.

8. “If Church Members Post it, it Must be True—of the Whole Church.”

Related to the last point, incorrect information paints you in a bad light. But that shadow may extend past you to immerse your whole church.

When someone in authority makes a public statement, it’s logical for others to assume those views represent the organization as a whole. A post from a church member may lead people to think that the opinion is coming from the pastor or leadership of their local church or even the Church-with-a-capital-C, but oftentimes, it is no more than one person’s point of view.

Whatever the scenario, the end result is that bad information, harsh judgments, or hypocrisy will turn people away. People who read them may not be able (or willing) to distinguish between the individual’s point of view and that of the whole church.

9. “You Look Like You Have it All Together … and I’m Pretty Messed Up, So I Won’t Fit in.”

The picture-perfect Christian life can make even the best of us feel bad about ourselves. And if we’re not doing what we should be—say, refusing to forgive a friend, or spending zero time in prayer—then it only adds to the guilt when other people post about how holy they are. In their defense, most people don’t mean it that way. But when I see twelve posts in a row about friends’ quiet time, their word of the year, and what Bible studies are speaking to them—and I’ve forgotten how to talk to God, or I’m facing a stumbling block—these posts don’t draw me closer to God. Instead, they push me away because I feel inadequate.

The truth is that we all struggle. Some people let it all hang out and hold nothing back online, and others are more reserved because it’s important to them to only put their best foot forward, but none of us are perfect. We need to be careful how we show ourselves publicly.

We can be “real” while not being vulgar, hypocritical, or judgmental. When people see we’re flawed but still serving God anyway—recipients of His grace and love in spite of it all speak louder than any meme ever will.

10. “I Don’t Really Want to Talk to People Because I’m an Introvert, So I’ll Stick to Online Connections.”

Makes sense—except for the fact that much of what happens online remains superficial. Even when it goes deeper, we often allow it to substitute for direct interaction. I read an article once about how social media has damaged dating. People might have trouble making conversation because they’ve shared every detail of their lives all day—what they had for breakfast, which outfit they wore today, what book they’re reading, and so on. Then, when it’s time to talk face to face, they’ve used up all their small talk.

When we see someone on social media, we think we know them—but remember, people can carefully guard what they post and share. There’s more to a person than their profile reveals. Have you ever met someone and not recognized them because they look nothing like their profile picture? That shows that we really don’t know those people. An online presence is just one dimension of our personalities; true bonding between people may be more likely in person. A church is meant to equip believers to reach out and serve God together—and “together” is the key. Jesus and the Disciples were all about the personal connection and sharing of stories, so don’t give up on meeting people face-to-face, introvert or not. Your church will be stronger because of it.

This article first appeared on Crosswalk.com.

5 Problems Rooted in Pinterest (and 3 tips to get past them)

I am already anticipating a mob of angry people reacting to this headline, so let me start with this: Pinterest is not bad. In fact, it can be pretty wonderful. I’m as guilty as the next person of getting lost in time, clicking and pinning and planning and thinking. I have inspiration boards for clients’ ...

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I am already anticipating a mob of angry people reacting to this headline, so let me start with this: Pinterest is not bad. In fact, it can be pretty wonderful. I’m as guilty as the next person of getting lost in time, clicking and pinning and planning and thinking. I have inspiration boards for clients’ logos, customer service campaigns, my daughter’s forthcoming wedding, ideas for handmade jewelry and organization projects, and (of course) recipes. I have boards of books to read and writing tips and inspirational quotes and prayer journaling. It’s a great source for inspiration and ideas. It’s all good and fine.

Unless it isn’t. And you’re the only one who can judge that. Hear me out.

I don’t mean to pick on Pinterest here. Much of this could be applied to any social media or online pursuit, but Pinterest’s very nature makes some of these potential problems more likely. As you read, ask yourself if you’ve let any of these five aspects get out of hand. And then ask God to help you restore balance in your life.

1. Pinterest makes it easy to compare ourselves to others—and believe we don’t measure up.

We are to establish our identity in Christ, not base it on others’ opinions. But when we spend enough time online, we may feel we don’t measure up in real life. Those perfect birthday parties? I don’t have time to make an elaborate cake, personalized invitations, themed party games, and take-home goodie bags filled with healthy, nutritious, delicious and beautiful snacks. So I may feel as though I’ve cheated my child, and carry around guilt that doesn’t do me nor my child any good. Or I may feel dislike for others who seem to be outshining me. The reality, though, is that I was fine until I saw what everyone else (supposedly) is doing. And perhaps the only reason I burned our dinner tonight, showing I don’t fit among the ranks of the world’s chefs, was because I spent too long scrolling through the picture-perfect “quick and easy crock pot meals” board.

2. Skewed expectations for ourselves may lead to unnecessary, unwanted pressure.

When I think what I see online is “normal,” not only do I feel as though I’m not as competent or accomplished as everyone else is, but it may lead to setting outlandishly high, time-consuming goals for myself. When they serve to motivate us, goals are beneficial. But when they cause us to continually strive (rather than learn to rest in our identity as a child of God who can never “earn” favor), unrealistic goals will just lead to disappointment. When rooted in a desire to compete, rather than being founded on God-given direction for our lives, outlandish goals gobble up time that could be better spent on other pursuits.

3. Dwelling on picture-perfect, Pinterest-perfect lives may lead to dissatisfaction with our own.

So many people have dream home boards (myself included), which can make me long for a bigger, prettier, more expensive house. Fashion boards, showing expensive clothing on unhealthily thin models, tempt me to overspend so I can look better (or under-eat to fit into that dress). Screen after screen filled with picture-perfect family portraits, creatively orchestrated and perfectly coordinated, makes me jealous of the family who doesn’t have anything better to do, and who has the time and money and ability to coordinate the whole family’s schedules to make it happen. Each of us has our own insecurities, so what bothers me may not faze you, and vice versa. But when we’re saturated with the ideal instead of focusing on reality, we’ll feel disappointment with our lot in life.

4. Showing off your material blessings—or presenting yourself as someone who’s “all that”—is rooted in pride.

When I go online, I get to create the impression people will have of me. If I post Bible verses and photos of my coffee mug sitting next to an open Bible, people will think I have a strong faith life. If I post lots of child-rearing tips, healthy recipes, and sappy family pictures, people will think I’m a good parent. Trying to make yourself appear to be something you’re not is not good for you, and it’s not helpful for all those who will see it and think they can’t measure up.

5. Using Pinterest (or Twitter or Facebook or Instagram) too much may be a way to avoid real life.

One thing I’ve learned about myself is that when I spend hours browsing in a Christian bookstore (or on prayer boards on Pinterest), it’s often rooted in a hunger to go deeper in my faith. But because I am human, I will spend all the time I could have used to finish that Bible study or start that prayer journal by reading about different ways to do it, studying tips, gathering supplies, and so on.

Losing yourself in the world of Pinterest—even when it’s a wholesome or positive topic—can be a sign that you’re avoiding the real world or simply a distraction that keeps you from getting anything productive done. If finding those housekeeping tips enables you to spend an extra 20 minutes reading your child’s favorite book, or gives you time to take a stress-releasing walk, then thank God for Pinterest. But if you’re viewing life as nothing more than a stage for you to create the perfect post, you probably need to reset your thinking and try to live in the moment, enjoying the life you’ve been given.

If you see yourself in any of the problems above, try these three simple tips for maintaining balance.

1. Set limits.

Don’t give time to Pinterest that you can’t afford to lose. If you know that you lose track of time when browsing, set a timer. And then go back to interacting with actual people in your actual home in whatever flawed and authentic manner you’re able to do.

2. Log off…

…when you find yourself intimidated, discontent or envious. This may mean you need to take a long break, or maybe just come back tomorrow when you’re rested.

3. Pray.

Dear Lord, we are fortunate to have all of these luxuries and technology, including access to Pinterest and the leisure time to spend using it. Help us use it for the right reasons—to enhance our lives, not disrupt them. To offer inspiration (not unattainable perfection) to others. To simplify, not complicate. To be inspired and motivated, not be distracted from what matters. Forgive us for all the ways we allow the priorities in our lives to be unbalanced, and help us keep our sights and priorities set on You. Because You never fail. You never judge or envy or condemn us for failure. And unlike anything else we’ll ever see, You alone are perfect. Amen.

This article first appeared on Crosswalk.com.

What You Need to Know about Making New Friends

“And these God-chosen lives all around—what splendid friends they make!” Psalm 16:3, The Message My friendships haven’t always been perfect. Trust me. I had a falling-out with my best friend early in my senior year of high school, relegating myself to a long year of walking the halls alone. I’m the one whose mom left ...

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“And these God-chosen lives all around—what splendid friends they make!” Psalm 16:3, The Message

My friendships haven’t always been perfect. Trust me. I had a falling-out with my best friend early in my senior year of high school, relegating myself to a long year of walking the halls alone. I’m the one whose mom left a paperback copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People on my bed (which I promptly threw back at her, devastated by my interpretation that she didn’t think I could make friends on my own). I’ve injured people with my words and actions and I’ve been hurt by theirs. I’ve been awkward and selfish and self-centered, and I’ve watched friendships fall apart.

But I’ve also experienced the power of friendship—to change me, to help me get in touch with the heart of God, to enrich my life and teach me about community and relationship. I’ve been transformed by the lessons I’ve learned through my failures. Genuine friendship is about walking through the deep waters of life side by side. It is inevitable that we will face death, despair, hurt, pain, and betrayal in this lifetime—but when we go through it together it changes us. Abiding friendship is about pointing each other to the God who never fails us, and believing that God often answers our prayers through the words of our friends.

Friendship gives you a chance to try out who you want to be (and who you already are, deep inside). You get to practice acceptance. You get to learn what your best traits are, hone your strengths—and face your weaknesses. Meeting new people provides an extra opportunity to practice the things that matter in relationships. Jesus said, “This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you. There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command… Now you are my friends, since I have told you everything the Father told me.” (John 15:12-15, NLT)

We’re commanded to love each other in the same way he loved us, so I can’t help but think there’s a measure of Jesus in the making of new friends. As you open your life to new people, let these simple ideas help you transform a mere acquaintance into a true friend.

There’s always room for one more.

Whether your life is overflowing with people, or your day-to-day existence is pretty lonely, there’s room for another real friend. Most of us have more obligations than time—but the truth is most of us haven’t mastered managing our priorities. It’s not easy, but if you want to spend time on a relationship, chances are there is something you can change or remove to make room for it—whether it’s one night a month during which you do not binge-watch Netflix so you can have dinner with a friend. Or spending your coffee break catching up by phone. Or texting something just because you know it will make her laugh. Or occasionally waking up an hour early to power-walk together before the rest of your house awakens. It’s worth the potential sacrifices. (Or so they tell me. I’m not a morning person.)

Go first.

I keep reading about how hard it is for women to truly connect. How rare it is to have one or two deep, abiding friends. How often people are hurt—and as a result, people tend to keep friendships at a pretty shallow, superficial level. But there’s so much power when we are willing to go deep, together. In my writing, I’ve learned that if I share my stories, other people will feel safe in sharing theirs, so I now apply that approach to all of my relationships. Any positive relationship is founded on authenticity. When you put yourself out there first, you’re betting that once your new acquaintance gets to know you, they will like you. That may not always be true, but you’ll never know—nor will you be able to find common ground to connect you—unless you take a deep breath and go first.

It’s not all about you.

Share your own stories and be real—but remember that friendship is a two-way street. A one-sided friendship goes nowhere fast. As interesting as your stories might be, they’re better if I can share mine, too. We all want to be seen and heard and understood, so ask questions. See what you can learn. Gaining new perspectives will enrich your understanding—even if this friendship doesn’t last. Instead of wondering what you will get in return, ask yourself what you can offer. It changes the dynamics of the relationship and often results in reciprocal kindness.

Don’t force it.

Not every friendship will be deep or immediate—or, for that matter, permanent. Don’t pressure someone to spend time with you. Even if they really like you, they probably can’t drop everything to spend every waking moment with you. The friendship has to fit into both people’s lives in order to last. In time, if it’s meant to be, it will find its place.

New isn’t necessarily better.

Let’s face it. Sometimes it’s more fun—and quite a bit easier—to start fresh with a new relationship than try to fix one that’s been around for a while. We get stuck in our grooves. After a while, we see the imperfect sides of friends, too. We might have even been on the receiving end of their sharp wit or hurt by an unkindness. Over time, hurt feelings and misunderstandings can grow into big problems—making a new friendship sound really good for a change. Friendship isn’t always easy and it requires effort and energy to maintain. Go ahead and invest in new friendships, but hold on to the ones you already have, too. We can learn a lot about ourselves with lifelong friends, but we can also be greatly enriched by the presence of someone new.

Practice selflessness and generosity.

Many friendships die because one person resents putting forth all the effort, so decide now to be the person who does most of the work. People are busy, and their lack of communication may not be a rejection, but a normal response to a busy life. Don’t take it personally; try again. When you invest time in your friends, they’ll know they are valuable to you—and even if they don’t respond, you will know that you tried. Anytime we open ourselves up, we risk being hurt—but when our efforts are met with the same kind of generous spirit, the relationship expands exponentially and becomes more than you could have imagined.

Above all, before all, and through it all—love one another.

It seems obvious and sounds trite, but it is true: love is the answer to nearly any question. In all things, err on the side of love. By doing so, you’ll brighten the life of anyone you’re involved with, and as you practice living the way Jesus taught, you’ll see more of him in your friends, and they’ll see more of him in you.

A Prayer for Friendship

Dear Lord, teach me to love others the way you first loved me. As I build relationships with others, let them see you in the extent of my generosity, the authenticity of my kindness, and the depths of my love. All of those things are only possible through you, the God who abides with me and calls me friend. Amen.

This article first appeared on Crosswalk.com.

11 Bad Ways to Study Your Bible

I struggled with this piece, because really, I could write it in one sentence: The only bad way to study your Bible is to NOT DO IT. See? Easy and simple. Done. But nothing in life is ever that simple, is it? And studying the Bible is a complex and often intimidating endeavor. Just like ...

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I struggled with this piece, because really, I could write it in one sentence: The only bad way to study your Bible is to NOT DO IT.

See? Easy and simple. Done.

But nothing in life is ever that simple, is it? And studying the Bible is a complex and often intimidating endeavor.

Just like with any practice of our faith, and no matter how good our intentions, we will fall short. I don’t say that to discourage you, but to assure you that it’s normal and that no one (including God) expects perfection. If I can be real for a minute, I’ll confess that I have approached reading the Bible with a bunch of attitudes that have prevented me from getting the most out of it. Somehow, probably because God is more generous than I can fathom and because there’s such depth to the word of God, I’ve walked away, nearly every time, with a nugget of wisdom or a deeper sense of peace. I bet you have, too.

Read on and see if any of these thoughts have passed through your mind, and then let’s pray together for help overcoming and understanding.

“I’ll take this… and this… but not that.” (Picking and choosing individual verses)

You can find a verse to support nearly any opinion you want to express. But the truth is, this only works if you take the verses out of context—if you neglect to look at who the author of that passage was, who he was speaking to, and how the verse fits into the scope of the whole gospel story. There’s nothing wrong with focusing on one verse or finding related passages as you study a topic. But there is danger in pulling it all out of context, because that’s when we can accidentally assign meaning that wasn’t originally intended. Our search for God is a search for truth-with-a-capital-T, and deceiving ourselves by not looking at the whole story won’t get us there.

“What she said.”(Relying only on other people’s teachings and interpretations)

I love a good Bible study—workbook pages with blanks just waiting to be filled in. Busy-work of copying verses, videos that set the stage, lay out the story, and lead you to the desired conclusion. There’s value in that—but will you remember it in six months or six years? When we learn something on our own, it stays with us longer. The Bible is one of the ways that God speaks to us today, and we have to interact with it personally in order to hear God’s voice and direction. Trust your instincts and look for meaning on your own. I promise you, it is there.

“I’m smarter than that; what does he know?” (Ignoring other people’s teachings and interpretations)

On the other hand, it’s arrogant to believe that we have a deeper understanding of these complex stories than men and women who made it their life’s work to study what God said about those gold-edged pages. When you want to go deeper, or when you’re struggling to make sense of it, turn to other sources to enrich what you’ve found on your own.

“Abracadabra…” (Randomly opening to a page for a “message”)

Don’t get me wrong: at times, I think that God leads me to a certain verse for a particular time. But we cannot expect that whenever we ask God a question, the first verse we see will be a direct answer, tailored to our situation, from the God of all eternity. God’s Word has unfathomable power, but it’s not magic and it’s not a lottery. We can’t treat the Bible as a buffet—picking and choosing whatever sounds good, leaving behind what doesn’t. God’s answers aren’t always easy, and sometimes the hardest thing to digest is exactly what we need.

“I’ve got this.” (Reading the Bible without benefit of prayer)

The Holy Spirit—the Helper—gives us understanding. The Bible’s pages only have meaning when viewed through the lens of prayer. We cannot come to an accurate interpretation or their meaning in our life until we allow God to lead us there, and when we forget to bathe the whole experience in prayer, we’re missing the most valuable thing: God’s presence and guidance. Faith is not a solo experience—we cannot have it without inviting God to be part of it. To get the most out of your study time, pray before, during, and after.

“Ain’t got time for that.” (Reading it just to be done with it)

Those year-long Bible reading plans don’t work for me, because I find myself treating it like homework—hurrying through so that I can say I’m done. When we rush, we’re cheating God, because in effect we’re saying, “Hurry up, God, I don’t have time for you.” Slow down. Ponder what you read, and listen for God to reveal meaning.

“God had better bless me for doing this.” (Reading the Bible resentfully)

Reading the Bible can be incredibly fulfilling—or a dry, laborious task. It all depends on your attitude. If you’re only doing it because someone said you had to, you’re not going to get much out of it. Reading the Bible does not earn our salvation, but it’s important because it strengthens our faith and encourages us to stand firm.

“I don’t think this part matters.” (Forgetting that God inspired every bit of the Bible)

Whether you take it all literally or figuratively, and whatever version of the Bible you read, it’s all important. We’re tempted to skip over the “boring” stuff—the genealogies, for example. But did you know that the meanings of the names, even in those long, dry lists, often tell a deeper story? Expect there to be more than initially meets the eye, because there usually is.

“I’ll show them.” (Reading to get “ammunition” against someone)

Ask anyone who’s ever been “beaten over the head” with Scripture—some people use God’s word as a weapon, wielding these holy words to prove you wrong, to back up their prejudices, or defend their sins, or (somehow) to make themselves appear more holy. God’s word should be used to guide our lives, strengthen our faith, and to teach us to live as Jesus did, not to allow us to say “gotcha!”

“That’s old news – irrelevant.” (Ignoring the Old Testament)

We now live under grace, right? The Old Testament no longer applies—or so many people think. The truth is that the New Testament is all about Jesus and the sacrifice he made for us to give us eternal and abundant life, but that doesn’t negate all that came before. The gospel story is rich in its heritage and history. The Old Testament is filled with references to the Messiah, situations in which Jesus is foreshadowed, and revealing the problems for which the only answer is Christ. Getting a grasp on the whole story can deepen our faith and enrich our understanding, revealing even more to us about the Messiah.

“Been there, done that.” (Assuming you already know everything there is to know about a passage)

I’ve read that the most-skipped parts of any book or article are Bible verses, because if we spend much time in church or study, we’ve heard so many of them before. Our gut response is to skip a familiar section, but even the most-studied passages can often yield an unexpected, insightful nuance if we approach them with an open mind. Slow down and you may be surprised what you discover.

A Prayer to Start Your Bible Study

Dear Lord, You are the author of this book, the author of our fates, the author of our lives. Give us a passion for hearing from You through the Bible, and open our understanding. Let us approach the Bible with belief that it is true, You are real, and Your Word will add meaning to our lives. Thank You for this gift and opportunity to get to know You better. Amen.

 

This article first appeared on Crosswalk.com.

How to be Friends with Your Pastor’s Wife

This should be easy, right? Intuitive? We don’t need checklists for how to be friends with our other friends, so why do we need this? Because we do. There is something inherently different about being friends with someone who holds a position of authority. It doesn’t mean one position is better than another—in fact, my ...

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This should be easy, right? Intuitive? We don’t need checklists for how to be friends with our other friends, so why do we need this?

Because we do.

There is something inherently different about being friends with someone who holds a position of authority. It doesn’t mean one position is better than another—in fact, my pastor says that pastors aren’t at the top but at the bottom. This kind of leadership is an inverted pyramid, and everything filters down—to and through the pastors. The church members come first, at the top, and below that, the elders and teachers who serve them. And below that are the pastors, who serve all those above.

For many years, my husband and I have been close friends with Nathan and Peggy, our co-pastors. Ours is a small church, like family, but sometimes that means everyone gets up in everyone else’s business. I’ve watched Peggy struggle to maintain relationships as she’s embraced her role within the church. Seeing the ways she has been hurt—but continues to faithfully serve, pray and teach—has made me try that much harder to be the kind of friend she needs me to be.

Here are some of the rules I set for myself, reminders of how to make the friendship enjoyable for her and not another obligation. Relationships thrive when you intentionally work on improving them. You, too, can adopt these ideas to help you be a better friend to someone in a leadership position.

1. Realize that she is both your friend and your leader. If you don’t respect her authority and leadership, you’re rejecting her personally. Some people want to separate the roles, happily embracing the fun friend while believing they are immune from their friend’s authority. Doing this, though, undermines the leader’s authority with everyone else in the church. Why should church members follow their pastors if their closest friends don’t?

2. Know that not everything is about you. The best friendships are a give and take. But in this type of friendship, in particular, you should err on the side of giving. A pastor’s wife is called upon to solve countless problems, often pulled into situations that ordinarily wouldn’t concern her. She probably truly does want to know what’s happening in your life, but sometimes your life needs to take a backseat to the issues she’s facing. Other times, she will welcome the chance to think about something else and will want to hear every detail.

3. Don’t ask questions she can’t answer. Pastors’ wives know quite a bit of personal information about those in the church. Respect the need for confidentiality and the sensitive nature of her position. She’s most effective as a leader when she is able to earn the trust of those who confide in her.

4. Be her safe place. Not only should you provide a judgment-free zone, but you can offer her a safe place to vent or work through issues. But only if you can stick to rule #5, below.

5. Keep her secrets. When she feels it is appropriate, she might confide in you. Don’t gossip. Don’t tell other people what she reveals in confidence. And if she does happen to tell you about someone’s struggles, do not let that change your interactions with or opinions of that person. As Christians, we’re called to forgive others of their transgressions—however we come to learn of them.

6. Know where the bounds of your influence end. Sure, offer advice like you would to any friend. But when it comes to leadership decisions, don’t offer unsolicited advice. Support her, ask questions if it seems appropriate, and help problem-solve if she wants your help. But know that your friendship does not entitle you to sway her decisions toward your self-interests.

7. Don’t use your friendship to get special privileges. Even if you are “best friends,” you will damage her position if you push your way into the forefront. Feel free to sit beside her sometimes. But know that it’s important to share her with the rest of the congregation because her relationships with others are integral in her role as a leader. If you’re jealous or possessive, it will damage her other relationships and your friendship will not last.

8. Be okay with coming last. This goes along with the previous point. Be intentional about creating opportunities to spend time with her, but realize that many situations will arise at the last minute over which she has little control. She may be late. She may have to cancel. If she doesn’t cancel, she may spend half the time you’re together on the phone talking to someone else. Be patient. She needs a friendship that can fit around and between the gaps in her schedule, rare as they might be.

9. Find ways to spend time together within the limitations of her schedule and responsibilities—inside and outside the church. Just because you’re friends, you are not required to volunteer for every church activity. But the fact that you are friends means you will want to help when you can. Go together to get the paper products and decorations for the upcoming ladies meeting. Ride along with her to visit new moms in the hospital or to pray for those having surgery. Attend conferences together when you can. And when she calls, suddenly finding herself with some free time, drop everything to join her for dinner and a trip to Target.

10. When you do have time with her, let her be herself. If she needs to talk about work or ministry or spiritual matters, let her. But if she wants to be silly and laugh, or buy a new pair of high-heeled shoes and eat chocolate, join in the fun. She’s a leader, but she’s also a real person who wants to enjoy all areas of life.

11. Maintain your spiritual life separately from her. Pray on your own. Study your Bible, read books, spend time alone in worship. What she needs more than anything is someone who will support her spiritually, someone she can walk beside rather than always leading. Be willing to learn from her, but don’t depend on her to carry the responsibility for your own faith.

12. Pray alongside her. If she asks you to pray about something, be diligent in doing so. She wouldn’t be a leader in church if she didn’t believe in the power of prayer, and this is one important way that you can be involved and help make a difference.

13. And above all, pray for her. Pray for her family, her ministry, her leadership, her spiritual walk, her closeness with God, her renewal, her energy, her passion, her friendships, her vision, her marriage. Pray for those who hurt her and challenge her, those who add stress or cause division within the church. Pray for those under her leadership as well as those she interacts with outside of the church walls. Spending time in prayer on her behalf is the most valuable gift you can offer her.

This article first appeared on Crosswalk.com.

10 powerful quotes that will change the way you live

Have you ever looked at a familiar verse in an unfamiliar Bible translation? Most of us have a preferred version, but reading it in a different translation often sheds new light on its meaning. It may reveal nuances, clarify details, or otherwise point us towards a deeper understanding. As Christians, we view the Bible as ...

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Have you ever looked at a familiar verse in an unfamiliar Bible translation? Most of us have a preferred version, but reading it in a different translation often sheds new light on its meaning. It may reveal nuances, clarify details, or otherwise point us towards a deeper understanding.

As Christians, we view the Bible as the ultimate authority on life—but sometimes, a fresh way of wording it is like having a new translation, providing additional revelation. As you ponder these 10 powerful quotes (and related Bible references), let them change the way you live your faith.

Prayer requires more of the heart than of the tongue. ~ Adam Clarke

How many times have you thought “I have no idea what to say” in prayer? When situations wear us down or circumstances make us weary, it may be difficult to put our thoughts into words in prayer. Lucky for us, words aren’t necessary. God knows what’s in your heart, even if you can’t find language to express that. Simply be still, and know that He is God. (Psalm 46:10)

Faith does not eliminate questions. But faith knows where to take them. ~ Elisabeth Elliot

Faith is not the absence of doubt, but a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8-9). God is big enough, powerful enough, and certain enough to withstand our questions and lead us to the answers. His gift of faith takes the pressure off us. Our role is to simply accept it, use it as a tool to navigate life—and know Who to turn to for answers when we inevitably have questions.

Those who have never rebelled against God or at some point in their lives shaken their fists in the face of heaven, have never encountered God at all. ~ Catherine Marshall

A friend once asked me, “So when I yelled at God and said I was mad at Him, was that prayer?” Without hesitating, I answered, “Absolutely.” Think about it: if prayer is simply communication with God, then isn’t any kind of expression of feelings—whether loving or angry, gentle or harsh—a form of prayer? Authenticity touches the heart of God and reveals just how merciful and generous He is. Honestly, whether we admit anger or not, He already knows what we feel (1 Samuel 16:7). So talk to Him openly and freely.

If we conceal our wounds out of fear and shame, our inner darkness can neither be illuminated nor become a light for others. ~ Brennan Manning

I once heard someone say that having all our sins broadcast on the 5:00 news would be the best thing that could happen. Can you imagine the shame and horror of everyone knowing it all? Terrible, right? Until you realize how that would rob shame of its power over us. When our sins are exposed, they can be healed. Until we’re healed (and forgiven), we won’t be effective at shining God’s light into other peoples’ lives. You never know who might need to hear how God rescued you, so don’t be afraid to share your story. Nothing in your past is too dark to be overcome by God’s light. (1 John 1:5-7)

No one has ever become poor by giving. ~ Anne Frank

You hear words like faith and love and peace mentioned in relation to God all the time. A word we use less—but which is no less important—is generosity. God gives abundantly, beyond what is required, and Jesus taught us to do the same. You can’t out-give God, and you can’t lose. Give cheerfully and not grudgingly, out of the overflow of gratitude in your heart for all that God has done for you. The gifts He gives us in return far surpass anything we had to offer in the first place (2 Corinthians 9:6-8, Luke 6:38), and, along the way, you’ll find that you have more than enough.

Whatever you do, He will make good of it. But not the good He had prepared for you if you had obeyed him. ~ C.S. Lewis

We have free will. Even though God is present everywhere and nothing happens without His awareness, He doesn’t cause the bad things to happen. There are natural consequences and ramifications to our actions, and we often make poor decisions. What is amazing is the way God can take any situation—betrayal, grief, loss (of health, relationships, security), despair—and bring something good out of it in spite of us. But just imagine how much better life would be if we didn’t get in His way in the first place. (Romans 8:28)

Prayer trumps panic every time. ~ Rachel Wojo

Worry about nothing; pray about everything. Sounds good in theory but it’s harder to hold on to this when panic sets in—when the disconnect notice is waiting on your door or the test results make your heart sink or the person you love turns their back on you. But panic gets us nowhere, and in fact, it keeps us from being able to see the truth of who God is. Jesus told us to ask, to seek, to trust, and to have faith. Panicking isn’t the most productive (or fun) way to live out those ideas. (Matthew 6:25-34, Philippians 4:6-7)

Prayer is not monologue, but dialogue. God’s voice in response to mine is its most essential part. ~ Andrew Murray

When I find myself babbling nonstop, it’s either because I’m extremely excited—or I really don’t want to hear what the other person has to say. Perhaps I’m afraid of their response, or too self-centered to care about their opinion. Think about the ramifications of that in a conversation with God. No good conversation is ever one-sided—but if there was ever a time that it would be, it would be when God is the one doing the talking. Many of us approach prayer as our chance to tell God what we think, but in humility, we should recognize that His words carry much greater weight than ours. I believe He wants to hear from us—but because He loves us, He also wants to teach us, guide us, and comfort us. In order to receive those things, we have to stop and listen. (John 10:27)

The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians: who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable. ~ Brennan Manning

Jesus said in John 17 that the world would know that His message is true when they see the unity of His followers. If I am a walking advertisement for God, do I want to be responsible for misrepresenting the God of the Universe? Not only that, but if I truly welcome Jesus into my life, the reality is that people will see Him in the way I live. If you don’t see Him in your life, or if you think others would not have a clue Who you belong to, take a step back. Ask God to become real to you, and be willing to let yourself be changed by Him. (1 John 3:16-18)

All you need is love.~ The Beatles

In the end, love is all that matters. Jesus said the greatest commandment was to love God with all our hearts, mind and strength—but, second, we are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. The Bible says love covers a multitude of sins. It is the hallmark and very genesis of our faith, and our faith is a response to the enormous love God offered to us in the beginning. If all the other concepts overwhelm you, if you can just handle one at a time, focus on this one. The Author of love will be more than enough—all that you need. (1 Corinthians 13:13, 1 John 4:7)

Dear Lord, speak to me. Live in me and instruct me. Guide me and help me to honor You, so that when the world sees me, they ultimately notice You. Amen.

This article first appeared on Crosswalk.com.

Should You Feel Shame for Missing Church?

If we could read people’s minds on Sunday mornings, we’d see all kinds of interesting thoughts… I’m tired. This is my only day to sleep in. People at church are hypocrites. They won’t even notice I’m not there. The ceiling would cave in if I walked through those doors. I know I should go, but ...

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If we could read people’s minds on Sunday mornings, we’d see all kinds of interesting thoughts…

  • I’m tired. This is my only day to sleep in.
  • People at church are hypocrites.
  • They won’t even notice I’m not there.
  • The ceiling would cave in if I walked through those doors.
  • I know I should go, but I don’t feel like it.

Sound familiar? I’ve been there. This article is for you, whether you attend regularly but feel guilty when you need to miss a week, or whether you do not go to church at all. I do go to church on Sunday mornings (but, I’ll admit, not to every service our church offers). I love it and I honestly don’t know what I’d do without it—but I’ll be the first person to say that you should not feel shame for missing it.

Because here’s the truth: God doesn’t exist only within the walls of a church.

“Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17 NIV)

That’s right. The Holy Spirit dwells within us. We can—and should—have a relationship with God that extends outside the walls of church, beyond the formal times of praise and worship, and even when we’re not around other believers.

The reality is that church can be complicated. And the words “church” and “God” are not interchangeable.

Countless people have been hurt by others in the Church. People have been judged, chastised, and abused in the name of religion. Some have been taught false beliefs about God and faith. No matter how well-meaning we are as a whole, the Church will hurt people and lose people. It’s inevitable.

The Bible instructs us to devote ourselves “to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42)—in other words, to gather with other believers for times of fellowship. It also teaches us to “not giving up meeting together” (Hebrews 10:25) and to worship God. You can do that outside of church, too, so why does going to church matter?

According to Ephesians 4:11-13, the purpose of the church is to build up believers, to equip God’s people for works of service. The church exists to teach us how to interact with others, to grow deeper in our faith, and to hear the Word of God (which instructs, teaches and convicts us). Why would the disciples tell us that some are appointed to be pastors and teachers and evangelists and prophets, if we weren’t supposed to gather together somewhere to learn from them?

1 Corinthians chapter 12 explains that all of us who have placed our belief in Jesus become members of one body. For the body to function correctly, all parts are necessary. In order for the Church to function as God intended, it needs all of us. Does that mean you have to go to church to be “saved”? No, because we cannot earn salvation—God offered it freely. Nor are we saved by our works (Ephesians 2:8-9). Doing what the Bible tells us to do doesn’t save us from our sin, and nowhere does the Bible say “attend church diligently every Sunday or you will go to hell.”

God calls our hearts to obedience, and the concept of church fulfills all of the instructions the Bible gives us. Personally, my faith has been formed in large part due to the people within my faith community—by hearing good teaching, by witnessing changed and faithful lives, by walking alongside others trying to live for God. Is my church perfect? No, and neither am I. Any time people interact with others, there’s a potential for strife and misunderstanding, for discord and hurt feelings. I’m not trying to downplay the very real damage done by some people within the church, and sometimes there are legitimate (and wise) reasons for people to leave their church.

But all in all, going to church can be valuable. What we stand to gain is so much greater than what we miss if we do not go.

So that settles it—we should feel shame and guilt when we don’t go, right? Nope. Because shame has no place in a relationship with God. We live under grace, which means that Jesus came to pay the price for all of our failings, all of our sins, all of our mistakes.

If we fall short (as we all will do), we don’t have to fall into despair. Instead, all we have to do is tell God that we know what we’ve done and want to turn away from that behavior. When we ask God to forgive us, He does. And then we can let go of it, and all related guilt and shame and remorse, because that is exactly what He will do. Let it go.

Honestly, if I thought God would beat me up every time I turned back to Him, I’d never do it. And if I believed He held Himself back and only made Himself known within the walls of the church, I’d start asking what kind of God He is.

When we ask these questions, though, we discover something amazing. He’s magnificent and holy and omnipotent—and yet He chooses to dwell inside us. If we are the temple, we don’t need church in order to find Him. He’s already everywhere we are.

As Christians, we can show our love for God by trying to live as Jesus taught his disciples. This includes having fellowship with other believers; encouraging, serving, and honoring one another; and hearing, reading, and studying the Word of God. Each of these things can be done outside of church, but the reality is that if you’re not gathered together with like-minded people, it’s more difficult to reach spiritual maturity. I know that in theory I can have a strong relationship with Christ on my own, apart from church, but in practice, my faith deepens and strengthens the more I am around other members of God’s Church. If, for whatever reason, you can’t be there (on a given week, or for a specific season of your life), then be intentional about filling your life with the things the church can provide.

But that pesky guilt? Those feelings of shame or embarrassment you feel when you don’t go? Let it go, and instead hold tight to the God who created the Church. The One who wants to capture our hearts. The One that is with us no matter where we are.

Please pray with me:

Heavenly Father, help me to let go of my shame and to trust in the reality of Your deep and abiding love for me. I want to honor You and know You better, both within and without the walls of the church. Help me do that in the place where You want me to be. Thank You for not hiding Yourself but for dwelling in me. Please show me how and where I can serve You best. In Jesus’ name I pray, amen.

This article first appeared on Crosswalk.com.

Prayer is no excuse

Periodically, the internet becomes collectively outraged at those offering weak platitudes (“our thoughts and prayers”) in the aftermath of whatever the newest tragedy is, whether it’s the latest shooting or natural disaster or terrorist attack. (I also hate that we have to apply the label “latest;” I hate that all of these are commonplace.) And ...

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Periodically, the internet becomes collectively outraged at those offering weak platitudes (“our thoughts and prayers”) in the aftermath of whatever the newest tragedy is, whether it’s the latest shooting or natural disaster or terrorist attack. (I also hate that we have to apply the label “latest;” I hate that all of these are commonplace.)

And I get it. I write about prayer, and yet I’m right there with them.

The thing is, for a Christian who really lives what he or she believes, prayer absolutely must come first. It’s the immediate response to a situation in which we need help. Or clarity. Wisdom, discernment, direction. Or hope, to save us from completely crumbling into a pit of despair. It’s how we draw near to the God whose very presence brings us comfort. The One who can somehow lead us through these incomprehensible moments in which it seems the world is insane and hateful and depraved.

But here’s the thing: Prayer does not excuse us from taking action.

Prayer should come first, if we believe what we say. If we have come to believe that Jesus is our shelter and our strength. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

But there is no excuse for stopping there. We still have to live in this world. We have to do what we can do to make it better. God hears us, He really does. But He uses His people to carry out many of His answers. He uses us to speak words of encouragement and hope to friends. He uses our arms to wrap around and hold close someone in the midst of tragedy and grief and suffering. He uses our minds to craft and implement solutions. He uses our passion to fuel us to make change, to find new and better ways to protect each other, sustain one another, connect with each other.

So, yes, when the unthinkable happens, offer your thoughts and prayers. Do it with all sincerity.

But recognize the truth that that’s not enough. You can’t just stop there.

Ask for wisdom from the God who knows all, who feels our pain, who already knows ways we need to change. Ask for guidance in showing compassion and offering meaningful help. Ask for direction in channeling your anger and frustration and despair in productive ways that will make these tragedies happen less often. Ask God what you can do to help. Ask God to forgive us for letting things get to this point. Ask God to heal the minds and tortured souls who think hurting people is the answer to their pain. Ask God to show the gun lovers the distinction between guns for hunting and personal protection and guns that shatter the lives of countless innocent people, and to help our lawmakers find the right levels of compromise to protect our individual rights while also protecting those we love (which are also those that God loves—every single one. There are no exceptions.).

Beg God to help us put a stop to this. To not let “another shooting” be so commonplace it doesn’t even slow us down as we scroll through our newsfeeds.

Lord, have mercy.

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