How Do We Know What to Believe? (AKA: Biblical Hermeneutical Crash Course 101)

100_3162   You’ve probably heard the same arguments over and over to the point of it almost becoming nauseating.  It seems that churches still focus on the key issues and regardless of which position you take, you will always find opponents.

What are your views on pacifism?  The Just War Theory?  Should we fight in self-defence or be absolute pacifists?

What do you think of women as leaders?  Can women be embraced and encouraged in any level of church governance or only in select roles?  Or should she merely be silent and submissive to her husband and male leaders?

What is the role of a Christian single?  Is celibacy the ideal or to be shunned and discouraged?

How should a Christian respond to inter-faith relations?  Should they be rigid and only maintain their own beliefs or open-minded and accepting of all world faiths without trying to convert or evangelize?  (A blog post coming on this one later)

These are just a select sample of the various questions you may be barraged with at any given time.  And in most of these cases, one can easily point to verses in FAVOUR or also AGAINST the position.  And the frustrating thing is that sometimes these contradictory viewpoints come from within the same passage, more often the same book, and always within the same canon (the Scripture itself).  It can be therefore becoming extremely challenging to navigate the maze between finding a convicting value while also appropriating the right amount of attention and care to the variety of factors that play into the text including: the socio-historical and economic climate of the Biblical world at the time, the writings and teachings of early church fathers and mothers, Spirit led guidance and interpretation (taking place within the community), our own cultural perceptions and biases formed from our unique experiences and cultural worldviews, and finally, of course, what the text itself is saying.

While I cannot answer all of these important questions for you (I will leave that between you and God), I would like to suggest a few invaluable tools that will hopefully aid you on your journey of discovering more about what you actually believe and why you believe it.

Tips and Tools For the Trade: A Biblical Student’s Handy Toolbox

#1: Humility in Admitting Our Blind-Spots

It is impossible to read the Bible without any form of bias and anyone who tells you they let the Scripture speak solely for itself without reading anything into it themselves is either intentionally prideful or, more often than not, simply ill informed.  The truth is that when we read the Bible our own thoughts and opinions are constantly being read into it, and due to our own life experiences and circumstances we may become overly passionate, zealous, or even dogmatic and defensive over certain texts whereas we may approach others in a rather apathetic or confused manner.  Here’s an example of what I mean:  As you all know (assuming you’ve read more than one of my blog posts) I am a woman who studied theology and trained as a pastor.  Thus, when I approach Scriptural passages describing a woman’s submission or suggesting a woman should not be in a key leadership position, my back instinctively goes up.  Even though I’ve studied these passages on numerous occasions and perhaps have come to several points of justification, I still have a difficult time reading what the text actually says on the matter.  Conversely, a passage speaking about how a master should treat his slaves does not appeal to my emotions in such a way because the concept of Biblical slavery is fairly foreign and repulsive to most modern day Christians (I am not speaking about sex or human trafficking here, I am speaking about slavery in terms of the Biblical injunction to act as servants and care for the land).

When determining what you believe on a topic and why, it therefore becomes important to do your best to step aside and see the text for what it is without bringing in your own personal and cultural pre-understandings.  Certain Scriptural texts such as those alluding to the polygamy at the time or injunctions to inflict physical harm and violence (for example through stoning adulterers) must be seen in light of the historical cultural time-frame rather than judged by our standards and values today.  A common phrase often employed in theology is: “don’t measure yesterday’s system by today’s yardstick.”  It is also helpful to keep in mind that if 2,000 years from now in the year 4016 a spaceman were to appear on our earth he may also be repulsed at some of the ways we treat one another or go about our daily habits even though what we are doing is commonplace and socially acceptable at the moment.  The same could be said about our cultural limitations.  That what might be encouraged as fine behaviour in one country may not be acceptable in another.  For example, some cultures believe it respectful to glance away and avoid body contact on first meeting an individual (especially one of a different gender) whereas in a culture like North America, the most socially acceptable thing to do would be to look the person in the eye and offer a handshake.  Some cultures find greeting one another with a kiss (perhaps even on the mouth) to be a form of great hospitality, warmth, and welcome, whereas other cultures would find this an intrusion on personal space.  And so on.  Therefore you see that when we are looking at a text that is so ancient and from a culture than the majority of us are not familiar with, it becomes important to state from the start our own limitations and prejudices that may thus hinder a truer reading and interpretation of the text.

#2: Humility in Acknowledging our Own Hierarchy of Rules

As stated above, certain texts garner more attention and interest on our part than others, but we must ask why this is.

Is it simply the result of our upbringing (perhaps a culture or denominational structure that valued some rules but not others)?  Is it the result of our own personal encounter with Christ – something He has taught us personally or that is especially relevant at the moment?  Is it the result of a current cultural issue (for example, the current ongoing trend about how the Mennonite Church should or should not accept people in the LGBTQ+ community)?

It is not necessarily a negative thing to have certain texts appear greater than others, but we must be willing to admit this is the case.  And it is for everyone.  I have a few friends who claim they follow all the rules in the Bible equally, but I have never actually met someone for whom this is truly the case.  A person may believe that a woman can’t preach, but then they proceed to attend church without a head covering.  A woman may believe that homosexuality is a sin, but then they do not grow their hair long.  A person may believe in the injunction to love their neighbours as themselves and to care about the social welfare of others, but then they completely neglect their own body and treat themselves with contempt or have a low self-image of who they are.  No one is immune from this and you shouldn’t think you are either.

So how do you determine which texts to give importance to?  Here’s what I recommend:

  • Keep the texts with a common theme. If the same (or a similar message) is constantly being repeated, pay close attention to it.  Especially when Christ Himself was the one to say those words.  On the other hand, if the command lies only in one of the Epistles and nowhere else and seems rather obscure, look more closely at the cultural context.  Perhaps it was meant only for a specific church in a specific geographical location for a specific reason.
  • Keep the texts which promote peace, harmony, and unity rather than discord and division. Although theological arguments are commonplace, this does not mean you have to enter into them needlessly.  In fact, sometimes for the sake of peace, it becomes more important to maintain a right relationship or friendship rather than simply being correct (even if you are).  Within any major world religion (including Christianity) there are certain Biblical texts that are inclusive and some that are exclusive.  Choose the inclusive ones over the exclusive ones.

In a recent course I took on Religious Literacy from Harvard University, Dr. Ali Asani posed the following questions (while although were geared towards Quaranic study are equally vital and valid when applied to the Biblical text):

How does an interpreter even know whether or not she is performing an exegesis [exposition, analysis] of the Scripture or an eisegesis [reading into]?  Is it even possible to know?  Is pure exegesis or pure eisegesis even possible? 

What do you think?

#3: Humility to Hear Other Viewpoints

Someone who is secure in their position not only tolerates, but welcomes, appreciates, and embraces a wide variety of opinions on varying theological matters.  This is not to say, of course, that you can’t question or push-back on areas you disagree with, though we should strive to do so with tactful respect (not with loaded arguments, name calling, or suggestion).  [If you need some help on how to do that go here: https://debdebbarak.wordpress.com/2016/08/22/when-we-disagree-with-each-other-tips-learned-in-life/]

What does this look like?  Here are a few tips:

  • Make intentional space and time to hear opinions that are different from your own. Ask open-ended questions that are straight-forward and to-the-point.  Don’t simply argue your position and then end with a question such as: “so even after all of this, why would you still believe that?”  Avoid value judgements.  Defend your own points, but once again, acknowledge your cultural blindspots.  (By the way, no one’s perfect, I say all of this, but I’ve fallen prey to doing some of the very things I’ve just suggested not doing…that’s why I’m encouraging you to learn from my mistakes).
  • Put your nerdy cap on and do some reading. As I’ve alluded to in other posts, it’s important to know the other position just as well as your own – in fact, if you are going to be a serious scholar, you should be able to debate the other viewpoint as if you truly owned it yourself.  I’m not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but when trying to determine my values on controversial topics, I always try to get as wide of a range of opinions as possible.  As I mentioned in my Harry Potter post, when deciding if I would allow my children to read H.P. or not, I intentionally took the time to ask a variety of people (parents, educators, pastors, Sunday school teachers) on both sides of the spectrum for their input.  I also did my own reading (including reading through the entire series and books and websites/blog posts both for and against) so when I ultimately arrived at my conclusion I was confident that it was not one taken lightly.  Please don’t be one of those people who argues your point without fully understanding why you arrived at that conclusion.  [If you want to read the Harry Potter post look here: https://debdebbarak.wordpress.com/2016/07/31/fantastic-fiction-or-wicked-witchcraft-a-critical-view-of-whether-christians-should-read-harry-potter/)
  • Make room for the Holy Spirit to move. In Anabaptism, we place a high value on the Holy Spirit freely working within our congregational and corporate lives, just as much as we place value on Him working in our personal experience.  Oftentimes, it can be quite helpful to approach a text communally and to live and share the experience of how He speaks to each of us through the same text.  One of the coolest things about Christianity is that 25 people can read the exact same text and we would get 25 different interpretations (this is not to be feared nor is it cause to defend our viewpoints as “the ultimate truth” over anyone else’s, but rather adds to the beauty of Scripture being acutely personal and practical).  It is also important to take time to pray and ponder passages on our own, but if we do so, we must guard ourselves against proof-texting (in other words, taking verses out of Scripture in order to prove a point).  Recently, for my Harvard course, I was listening to a great lecture by Dr. Sajjad Rizvi, who prompted me to think of this classic example we can all learn from:

 

A father beats his young son for being disobedient and stealing toys from his siblings.  The father beats the child so badly that marks appear on his body and when the boy shows up at school, the teacher questions him about this.  The father responds that he has only acted in this way because he is in Christian and in the Bible it states, “Those who withhold the rod hate their children, but the one who loves them applies discipline.” (https://www.biblegateway.com/verse/en/Proverbs%2013%3A24).  In this case the question is: did the father apply harsh discipline because of this verse – because he thought it was the most accurate way to continue his religious practices and beliefs and because he truly wants his son to grow up to be a responsible member of society?  OR did the father abuse his child, then look for a text that justified his behaviour and applied it (trying to convince himself this was truly the case) in order to assuage his own conscience and guilt?

Obviously depending on the actual scenario, the correct answer could be either one depending on his true motivations, but this is a question we must all ask ourselves.  We must especially guard against using Scripture verses to deny someone their basic human rights, or to look down on a certain people group due to their culture/ethnicity, socio-economic status, gender, or sexual orientation.  We must be aware not to justify cruelty or abuse on the grounds of Scripture, but we also must do this in less obvious ways just as rigorously.  We must do it on matters that make us prideful, insecure, or resentful.  We must do it in order to take the best care possible of those entrusted to us, but we also must do it on order to take care of ourselves and not let others take advantage of us.  In other words: we don’t always need to convince ourselves that we are in the wrong.  We don’t always need to be the stereotypical apologetic Canadian!

Although this blog post was not able to cover all of the major facets of a theological debate, I do hope it’s given you a bit of ground with which to think and work with.  Ultimately, our theological differences should work as our greatest strength and asset, not as a weakness.  We should constantly remind ourselves that our academic theological debates represent a greater desire to serve Christ and to be faithful to the text and thus it is not about simply being right or wrong, but rather having a greater appreciation for the whole character of Christ and His inspired Word instead.  I hope that on your journey to discovering what you believe and why, you will meet many wonderful travelling companions – both those who agree with you and can support you in your personal opinions, but more importantly, those who see the world differently than you do.  Because it is really the latter that makes your life all that more beautiful, complex, and special.

 

theology2

 

Towards Our Common Sung Theology

16227  Throughout church history, our faith, our doctrines, and our spirituality have been most vitally expressed through our sung words.  Sharing in the rhythm, tone, and energy that music – whether through hymns, praise choruses, A Capella, choral, instrumental, or chanted genres provides us all with a sense of our common humanity and draws us closer to one another and to Christ.  There is something about joining our hearts and our voices in praise and worship to our Creator that often speaks to the deepest level of our souls – weaving together our most profound emotions, inspiring us towards action (and occasionally protest), instilling in us a great sense of comfort, and even challenging us when we would otherwise feel apathetic.

Although there may perhaps be a few churches that still do not employ any form of music, it is fairly safe to say, that almost all major Christian denominations and other world religions find music integral to the life of the congregation.  Within the Mennonite and Anabaptist traditions, music has also been central to our life and witness.  In fact, I can recount being a young teenager and volunteering at the local Mennonite nursing home.  While there I met an elderly woman, Anna, who came across to Canada from the Ukraine on a boat while singing:

“Wherlos und verlassen sehnt sich oft mein Herz nach stiller Ruh; doch Du dekkest mit dem Fittich Deiner Liebe sanft much zu.  Unter Deinem sanften Fittich find’ich Frieden, Trost und Ruh; den Du schrimest mich so freund-lich, shutz-est mich und deckst mich zu.”

The English translation of which reads:

When I’m lonely and defenseless, my heart longs for rest and peace.  Then You spread Your wings of caring, with Your love You cover me.  Under Your soft wings of mercy my soul rests and is renewed, for You shelter me with kindness, keep me covered, close to You.  [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D1GMdN73rnA  – plus cute baby conducting!]

This song greatly sustained Anna during some very stressful and confusing times of her life.  Being uprooted from the familiar and travelling to a strange land where she did not speak the language or know the customs and culture must have been very unsettling and challenging for such a young girl.  Yet, this song became an anchor to her in the storm, kept her face upright, and allowed her to see goodness and grace amidst the terror, turmoil, and loss.

Many of us also have had similar instances with particular songs.  There are a number of modern worship songs I go to when I am feeling distressed, confused, or anxious.  Here are a few you might like to check out for yourselves:

Strong Enough (Matthew West): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=knuHDPbE5es

You’re My Everything (Owl City): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sbOcVER0WqU

Guardian (Ben Cantelon): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MiRH8Hc8VQI

You’re Not Alone (Owl City, Britt Nicole): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DavJ9UKS2ps

I Will Praise Him (Rebecca St. James): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jXET-duSRr8

The Kindness of Our God (Rebecca St. James): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=roeDXgsmaUA

Diamonds (Hawk Nelson): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yf1ARbpB0gA

Better Than a Hallelujah (Amy Grant): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rm5kx3xqmg0

Shoulders (For King and Country): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TfiYWaeAcRw

Sparrows (Jason Gray): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wRJZQFRyZ6s

 

There are also a number of older hymns I turn to for support and guidance: How Firm a Foundation, Blessed Assurance (my baptismal hymn), It Is Well With My Soul, and Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing to name only a few.

 

One of the most wonderful advantages to music is that it allows us to express ourselves when words fail us.  Sometimes I am experiencing something, but don’t know how to share it with a friend, but if I play a certain song it summaries exactly what I would have shared.  At other times, my friends are really struggling with something and no words of advice or wisdom will lessen the impact.  Instead, sharing with them a song allows them to be in the present without meaningless words needing to be exchanged.  We thus minister to one another in this sense of shared musicality, letting the spirit flow freely.

There is a great worship song by the City Harmonic which sums up music ministry perfectly:

Praise the Lord when it comes out easy
Praise the Lord on top of the world
Praise the Lord ‘cause in every moment Jesus Christ is Lord
Even in the middle of the joys of life
There is always grace enough today to
Praise the Lord    

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lm7V-26flkQ

 

In fact, the Apostle James himself wrote: Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=James+5%3A13&version=NASB

Worshipping Christ fully through our music is about finding a balance between proclaiming the goodness of our God and singing the Lord’s song in a foreign land.
When we lift up our voices, there will definitely be many moments of jubilation, celebration, and delight.  But there will also be moments of immense pain, intense hurt, and immeasurable grief.  Nevertheless, when we turn our hearts and our voices to God in prayer and in song, we receive all the blessings of a pure and complete relationship with Him.  We are truly able to sing about the rest and peace we find in Him.  We are truly able to ask Him to keep us sheltered, close to Him.  We are capable of praising the Lord at every moment.  We are able to sing and be sustained because of our common sung theology – a solidly scriptural belief that places Christ at the centre.  We are able to share in our common humanity because music is the one gift that unites us all.

Every Woman’s Survival Guide for Being in Full-Time Ministry

867a3e6795e578c0646c91530d770128   Originally I was going to name this post: “For Women Only: 3 Things They Never Taught Us in Seminary” and it was going to be an exposition of the various ways women can feel lonely in a “man’s world.”  However, after thinking about it for a while, I decided that this was not really the direction I wanted to go.

You see, the word “ministry” can often be quite misrepresentative.  Everyone who is a Christian and who is actively seeking to follow Christ, to evangelize, and to reach out and support others is already engaged in ministry.  It doesn’t matter if you’re an elementary school teacher, an engineer, or an at home mom…you’re doing ministry, and you’re likely doing it full-force.  Now here’s where it gets a bit tricky.  Oftentimes in the professional world, we get a bit muddled and try to segregate “ministry” (as in helping out at the church food bank) and “vocational MINISTRY” (as in being a pastor, woman’s worker, youth leader, or any other paid position).  But once again this is misleading.  That’s because even if you never preach a sermon, you probably are logging in those same hours… in fact, you’re probably also in full-time ministry.  How many diapers did you change this week again?  How many errands did you run for the kids?  How many times did you bite your tongue when your co-worker was going at you because you wanted to be a good Christian influence?  You get the picture.  When we try to put “ministry” in a box it ends up disastrously because it becomes more about what we (or what society) thinks are the most fundamental tasks for the Kingdom versus what Christ thinks are the most important.

And what exactly does God say is the most important task in full-time vocational ministry?  It is this:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’  The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark+12%3A30-31)

 

Loving God, seeking to follow His will, and in turn reaching out to others who need us the most.

 

But how exactly do we do that more practically?  Look no further than the book of James:

Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.  (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=James+1%3A27&version=NASB)

 

Or in the words of Eugene Petersen’s The Message:   Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world. (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=James+1%3A27&version=MSG)

 

Menno Simons got it right when he gave this brilliant explanation and expanded upon this passage:

 

True evangelical faith is of such a nature it cannot lie dormant, but spreads itself out in all kinds of righteousness and fruits of love;
it dies to flesh and blood (1);
it destroys all lusts and forbidden desires (2);
it seeks, serves and fears God in its inmost soul (3);
it clothes the naked (4);
it feeds the hungry (5);
it comforts the sorrowful (6);
it shelters the destitute (7);
it aids and consoles the sad (8);
it does good to those who do it harm (9);                                                                                                   it serves those that harm it (10);
it prays for those who persecute it (11);
it teaches, admonishes and judges us with the Word of the Lord (12);
it seeks those who are lost (13);
it binds up what is wounded (14);
it heals the sick (15);
it saves what is strong (sound) (16);
it becomes all things to all people (17).
The persecution, suffering and anguish that come to it for the sake of the Lord’s truth have become a glorious joy and comfort to it.” (https://themennonite.org/feature/true-evangelical-faith/)

I have the first part of this quote featured on my Skype, Google HangOut, and Facebook and I try to include it once in a while when I am preaching just to keep in fresh and in the front of people’s minds.  It’s a text I try to live by.  It’s a text that breathes life into who I am and into my existence.

So now that we understand and realize that we are ALL called to full-time vocational ministry, what do we do?  I’m going to be open and honest with you for a minute: even having the assurance that you’re in the field God called you to, doesn’t necessarily make it any easier.  Women still have to face all sorts of pressures.

Women have to face outward pressures.  It is easy for us to feel lonely and singled out.  You may be blessed to have a core group of friends who support you in your ministry despite your gender, but you’re also going to constantly have people in your face who suggest that serving God is a sin in your case because you have an XX chromosome and not an XY.  You’re going to face discouragement when sharp disagreements occur.  And you might be frustrated when the only positions you can get are working with kids or youth and you really don’t see yourself doing either.  Even if you are surrounded by people who accept your calling, you might still feel lonely because you will be one woman among a barrage of men.  The men you work with might be wonderful, but you might still long for a deeper connection – one which only a woman-to-woman bridge can bring.

Women also face internal pressures.  Ideas they bring to themselves about what success looks like.  The pressure to conform to social norms that they themselves feel are important, or a certain shyness that makes them unable to be assertive to men.  I’ve written more about that in my recent blog post: “Boundless Possibilities” you can read it here: https://debdebbarak.wordpress.com/2016/08/18/boundless-possibilities-dismantling-the-myth-of-the-good-little-church-girl/

I’m sure I could write a hundred different blog posts addressing a hundred different ways to tackle this problem, but I think it really all comes down to 4 key points.  If you want to succeed and have longevity in your ministry – any kind of ministry, you must: know who you are, know whose you are, know where you are, and know why you’re there.

Know Who You Are

I’ve mentioned in a few other posts that my inward struggle to accept myself for who God has made me to be has been an ongoing battle…and one that I often don’t succeed at because I’m a pacifist.  I’ve also shared how I’ve begun addressing that issue and recommended a fantastic resource called Daughters of the King (http://www.dot-k.com/). This great website also has a 7 minute audio clip speaking words of affirmation and truth.  In the description it reads: “It is important that you know who you are in Christ.  If you are going to accomplish anything in the earth for God’s glory, it will first begin with you knowing who you are.  Be blessed as you listen to Scriptures from God’s Word that will give you clear understanding into your identity.”

The key to maintaining a strong and vibrant ministry is understanding and accepting who you were made to be.  It’s about recognizing the unique ministry you have which only you are capable of achieving at this time and to this particular group of people.  It’s about not comparing yourself to others.  Realizing that you have strengths and gifts that they don’t have, but also that you have many blindspots and weaknesses where you will need to rely on others and delegate tasks to them because they will be a better fit.  It’s about seeking out resources to improve on those areas where you still need to grow.  And it’s about being mentored so that you can be the best version of yourself you can possibly be without worrying or caring so much about what others around you are (or aren’t) doing.

Know Whose You Are

We belong solely to Christ and our ministry flows from His desire for us to please Him and through the guidance of the Holy Spirit who permits that to happen.  Everything that happens in our life takes place for a purpose.  There is no meaningless or wasted moment when we follow and serve Christ.  Even the most difficult and painful times can bring us closer to Him if we are willing for that to happen.  When we know who we are in Christ, we follow the Voice of the Good Shepherd (not endless societal rants or superficial theological disagreements).  We become attuned to His Words and His will…forsaking all others and realizing that sometimes His calling upon our life will bring about rejection and discord.

It’s also recognizing when we need to drop a circular argument because it’s getting us nowhere.  Of course, we rely on those emotionally closest to us to provide support and encouragement and we long for people to hear what we have to say and affirm it.  However, the Bible also tells us “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with everyone.” (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans%2012:18)  Scripture also tells us to avoid endless quarrels, and worthless quandaries and instead seek to edify one another in our attempt to build up the Body of Christ: “But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and strife and disputes about the Law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.” (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Titus+3%3A9&version=NASB).  In other words, next time you want to harp on your favourite controversial passage, ask yourself what you’re really going to accomplish through it and why you really want to do it.  If you need more help in this area, check out my recent blog post on this topic: https://debdebbarak.wordpress.com/2016/08/22/when-we-disagree-with-each-other-tips-learned-in-life/

When we are secure in Christ, we don’t have to worry about whether or not people will like us or try to get everyone to see things from our point of view.  Knowing WHOSE we are, is just as important as knowing WHO we are because it reminds us that without Christ we can do nothing and thus, any ministry we are called to belongs to Him.  Not to those who disagree with us.  And not even to ourselves.

Know Where You Are

There is a famous African proverb that says: “if you don’t know where you are, or where you’re going, any bus will do.”

For years I have dreaded these two questions in a job interview:

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

What will you do if you don’t get this job?
I’m an extreme planner.  Not only do I have a 5 year plan, but I also have a 10 and 15 year one.  But over time, I’ve learned that “In their hearts human beings plan their lives. But the Lord decides where their steps will take them.” (https://www.biblegateway.com/verse/en/Proverbs%2016%3A9) In other words, just when I think I’ve figured it out, my life drastically changes.

Take my current position.  Never in my entire high school or undergrad career would I have seen myself working with people who have intellectual disabilities.  The thought never crossed my mind… I was destined to be a full time pastor in the Mennonite Church.  Then, all of a sudden, in my first year of seminary, my heart tugged me in this direction.  It was completely unplanned and unexpected, but now I have been in the field for almost 4 years.  I love what I do and see it as my primary focus and ministry.  It has grown from curiosity into an intense calling, affirmed by others around me.

Well, not everyone.  Some people think I’m wasting my education and should go back into full-time pastoring…but in the end of the day, you need to rely on Christ’s will and plan for your life.  After all, it’s your life, not theirs.  When Christ clearly shows you what you are to do, you don’t hold back, you go do it…even when others around you might not understand or might think it’s foolish and pointless.

So where are you today?  Are you young or old?  Are you just beginning your academic journey or have you been retired for years?  Where are you currently living?

When you think about your age, life-stage, and geographical position, each place brings with it new opportunities for witness and evangelism.  Opportunities that you might not have had in previous years and that you might not have again because this is where you are RIGHT NOW, at this particular season.  Think about how you can be a good steward with where you find yourself at this moment.  Don’t keep looking back – preserved in the past like a stand-still pillar of salt.  Don’t keep reminiscing about the “good old days” neglecting the current reality.  And conversely, don’t become too future focused.  Don’t keep grasping for the next goal without taking a moment to pause and reflect on what you have just accomplished.  Live in the here and now.  Live in this tension of the “now” and “not yet”.  Live with the assurance that God is going to move in many mighty ways to the people you are encountering at the bank, the grocery store, your local church, your favourite coffee shop, and the ice rink.  That’s really the key to a successful ministry.

Know Why You’re There

Have you ever found yourself in a trying situation – a place you never wanted to be, never want to go back to, and would never wish on your worst enemy?  Have you ever asked God why He placed you there to begin with?

Helen Rosevear was such a woman.  A young, idealistic English doctor in the D.R. Congo, she soon found herself face to face with rebel soldiers, force, and violation.  Yet, she chose to ask God the question: “Why am I here?  What can I accomplish through this terrible injustice?”  God spoke quietly and softly to her heart reminding her of who she was and whose she was.  She recounts this question in particular “are you willing to trust Me even if I never tell you why?”  In her fear, pain, and frustration, she humbly submitted regardless of the cost.  She later publicly shared her testimony on numerous occasions where she proclaimed “the question is not ‘is it worth it?’ but ‘is He worthy?’”  Because of Rosevear’s great internal strength of character, she has become a hero of the faith to many including a mentor to myself.  Oh that we would have such a faith!

You might have found yourself in a similar position, or you might find yourself in a less intense one… but we all face struggles and difficulties of various kinds throughout our journey in life.  When we’re stuck at that job we don’t want to be in, we can ask ourselves “why is God calling me here?  What is He trying to teach me through this work place?  How can He use me to minister and benefit others?”  When we’re about to lose it with our children we can ask God for the grace we need reminding ourselves that He is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love even despite our rebellion and disobedience to Him (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+145%3A8&version=NASB).  When we find ourselves in a time of utter confusion and at a crossroads, unsure of exactly where we are or why we’re there, we can rest in Him and His promise to clarify our calling and our direction.

If you need more guidance in this area, one of my fellow MennoNerds Benjamin L. Corey recently wrote a series of posts on this very topic as he recounts a deep personal loss he recently experienced.  Two of his posts in particularly really stuck out to me because of their honesty and depth.  Corey gives us the great reminder that even in loss and confusion, it’s okay to question God and to be angry.  Even when we’re following Christ and relying fully on Him, we’re still going to have many questions – that’s to be expected.  But we also know where to turn for the answers.

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/formerlyfundie/how-to-be-here-when-here-is-the-shittiest-place-you-can-imagine/

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/formerlyfundie/if-god-is-the-cause-of-our-suffering-hes-kinda-a-jerk-just-sayin/

Being a woman in ministry is a difficult and often painful place to be, but my following these four steps of knowing WHO we are, WHOSE we are, WHERE we are, and WHY we are there, our ministry will become much more robust.  When we keep seeking the guidance of the One who called us into His glorious hope, it also becomes so worth it.  May you experience a glimpse of His joy as you seek and serve Him with the people He has entrusted you with TODAY.

When We Disagree With Each Other (Tips Learned In Life)

argument2   I get it.  I can be a pretty argumentative person.  I thrive on debates (much to the chagrin of my more passive friends) and as an online personality test once told me, I am a haughty-intellectual “you think you know everything, and you probably do.”  In fact, I once thought I was wrong, and I was right, so therefore, I’m always right!

All joking aside, I have recently been reflecting on my own inner nature to try to prove my point, to become defensive, and to go around in circles without ever landing the plane.  So to help me with this on-going struggle, I’ve started doing some research.  I’m currently reading a really great book called When to Speak Up, and When to Shut Up by Dr. Michael Sedler.  In this book Sedler shows us ways to affirm the other person’s dignity and worth, while also having the courage to state our own convictions clearly.  Here’s one of the best tidbits of advice he provides: “don’t argue by stating your position over and over.  If someone does not agree the first time, the next five times will not convince them.  Saying it louder and with greater force will not work either.” (p.127). Yep, something I am definitely guilty of personally!

A few days ago, one of my fellow MennoNerds, Tabitha Driver wrote this incredible blog which you can see here: http://ultimatemetaphor.blogspot.ca/2016/08/when-christians-disagree-5-common-logic.html.  I’d love to just copy and paste all the nuggets of wisdom she has to share, sorry Tabitha!  But being the good little Mennonite girl that I am, I thought I’d kind of amalgamate Sedler’s book and Driver’s blog in order to provide you with my own perspective on the topic.  It’s probably not as good as either one, but I hope it might be a close third.

#1: Understand the Reason for Your Argument

Although as I have stated and will readily admit, I am quite an argumentative person and thus probably get into some form of debate daily (yes, the good Lord still loves even me!) in the interest of time, I will only share with you the most recent one.  Lately, I have really been struggling with the issue of women in leadership.  Those of you who read my blog know that I just came home from a year-long mission’s trip to Edinburgh, Scotland.  Unlike my liberal Canada, Scotland is still quite conservative in a number of ways, meaning that you’d be hard-pressed to find a female pastor over there.  In fact, many churches will not even let a woman be an elder!  This has oftentimes been quite a challenge and struggle for me.  I studied theology and I graduated with my Master’s of Divinity in Pastoral Ministry.  Previously, I have served as a pastor and pastoral intern and it is difficult for me to go from being permitted to preach in a church to being told I need to be quiet and submissive.  So I usually go right ahead and jump to the defensive.  Even in Scotland, I was often very clear that this issue is a deal-breaker for me.  I have no problem going to a church like that for a year or two, but when thinking of settling somewhere permanently or when contemplating where to put in church membership, this is a major issue of consideration.  Yeah, I know, I’m probably a bad missionary for not blending in enough with the culture!  However, I have recently started looking at the question quite honestly.  What exactly is it about being told I can’t lead or preach that irritates me so much?  On the one hand, I believe I have a strong calling from God and I want to please Him with my education and be a good steward of the 4 preaching courses I’ve taken.  That’s a good motivation…probably the right one to have.  But admittedly, I also realize that lots of times the real reason I’m frustrated is because I have an ego.  I want to get the “status” I feel I deserve.  I don’t want to be deprived of doing something I enjoy.  And yes, perhaps, if I probe deep enough, I like the attention that preaching gives to me.  So then the issue becomes less about God and more about myself which, as I’m sure you know, is a trap door for disaster.

Summation: It’s fine for you to disagree with someone else’s opinion, but you have to know WHY.  You have to be honest with yourself.  You have to realize when the issue is becoming less about God and more about you.

#2: Become Aware of Internal Triggers and Unwanted Emotions

Emotions are one of God’s greatest gifts to us.  They remind us that we are alive and healthy.  They allow us to experience joy and pleasure.  They can also be highly distracting when we want people to take us seriously if we don’t know how to properly reign them in and put them in check.

A list of emotions to watch out for: anger, bitterness, jealousy, pride, envy, fear, intense people-pleasing, sadness, depression…I’m sure you can think of any number of other adjectives to add as well.

If you suddenly find yourself exhibiting a high level of any of these emotions, you need to slow down, take a breath, and stop.  Re-evaluate the situation, ask yourself why you’re experiencing these feelings, validate them, then don’t resume the confrontation or debate until you can put them back in place again.

Emotions are neither bad nor good in themselves, but rather they serve as warning signs and signals.  They can be helpful, but they can also detract from what you’re trying to say and make your words sound less credible.

Summation: A wise theologian once told me: “in the end of the day, your opinions don’t matter, and neither do mine, the only thing that matters is the Word of God.”  We would do well to heed his instructions.  It can be easy for us to become preoccupied thinking our viewpoint is the only correct one to have.  We may even begin feeling our blood boiling and our pulse quickening.  But if that happens, we need to take a step back and relax.  We need to keep our head in the discussion…if we can’t do that, well…quite frankly… then we aren’t ready or mature enough to have that type of conversation yet.

#3: Agree to Disagree in Love…No Really…

With the women in leadership issue, I’ve also been realizing how I can be rather hypocritical on the issue… and I’ve definitely seen this with other areas as well.  Here’s a classic example.  I’m a people-pleaser (a bit ironic that I’m also an avid debater, isn’t it?)  I love stirring up trouble, but then I go cower in the corner because I’m scared that people will be mad about it for the next month and a half (oftentimes this is an over-exaggeration and the majority of the time, they are just fine).  Anyways, I’ll usually give a stereotypical Canadian phrase such as this: “Ultimately, I believe we can all have different opinions on this.  It’s not a deal-breaker for salvation.  It’s a side-hall issue, not a main-hall one.  I have many friends who disagree with women in ministry, but we are all still friends.  I respect them.  They respect me.”  But I realize that this is all just lip-service to what’s really stirring in my heart.  Truthfully, I wish I could be the type of person who always respects other people’s viewpoints and is fine with them, but in reality, I’m far from that.  I might nod my head in agreement when I’m with them or even add a few “mmm-hmmms” and “yes, that makes sense” but inwardly I’m seething.  A lot of the time, I feel like I need the other person to come to my side, or else I haven’t done the issue justice.  Even though I say that I’m fine with a close friend not supporting my vocation, inwardly, I’m hoping to bring him or her around so that they can see things from my viewpoint.  Which actually really isn’t fair.  If I’m asking them to respect where I’m coming from even if they don’t agree, to love and honour me even when they don’t support me, I should definitely be doing the same for them.  So why aren’t I?

Summation: If you suddenly discover yourself secretly trying to convince the other person to come to your side even though with your lips you’re proclaiming that they are entitled to their own opinions, ask yourself why you aren’t willing to relinquish the control.  What do you hope to get from their changing their mind?  Is that really necessary for life in the Body, or can we actually, really, truly agree to disagree on some issues and still maintain close friendships and ties?   One of my really good friends from Edinburgh and I have butted heads on this issue many, many times, but I’ll always remember what she said once when I Facebook messaged her after a particularly stressful debate.  She said to me: “I’m not offended.  Just because I disagree with you doesn’t mean we can’t discuss it, but the opposite, actually.  Having different opinions adds colour to our friendship and is a beautiful part of our personalities.  I don’t have this need to have everyone agree with me all the time, and you shouldn’t either.”  Since then, whenever we end up being on different ends of the spectrum, I always remind myself to be thankful because our differences are what makes our relationship so unique and so much more interesting.  It’s what makes it special, rather than bland or boring.

#4: Avoid Obnoxious Name Calling (In Other Words: Grow Up!)

Academic debates can often turn into “straw-man” type arguments when we let our emotions run rampant (if you don’t know what a “straw-man” is, it’s basically using irrelevant information and attacking the individual’s personal character in order to strengthen your point.  It’s highly emotional, it’s immature, and it’s the way of most politicians – cf. what we see all the time in the latest U.S. political debate).

Getting involved in a theological debate requires precision, honesty, and integrity.  It also means knowing and understanding the facts… not just going off on someone you disagree with.  One of the biggest downfalls of the church, is Christians using verbal ammo against one another in order to compel the person to come to their side.  May I ask a quick question though?  If you’re constantly shooting at me, barraging me with your machine guns – what makes you think I want to hop the fence?  I’d much rather stay on the side of peace.  In other words, feel free to challenge someone else’s opinions, but do it with love and grace.  Be the Quaker Peacemaker who walks across the field with a bag of chocolate chip cookies, shakes the enemy’s hand, and gives him a hug.  Don’t be that big army thug.  After all, Anabaptists are called to be pacifists, right?

Summation: If you want people to take you seriously, you don’t get that respect from knocking someone down, belittling them, insulting their character, or questioning their spiritual status. In other words, avoid saying meaningless things like “if you were really a Christian, you’d…,” or “I don’t see how you can really be a Christian and do…” Avoid thinking of one particular denomination, way of thinking, or theological position as being the only infallible option that will bring one to eternal life.  Also resist throwing around terms like “liberal” or “conservative” with a tone suggesting that one means heresy and the other is synonymous with close-mindedness.  If you are going to use loaded terms, understand the implications and look up what they actually mean (so as not to use them out of context).  Better yet, avoid labels altogether.  Even if you intend to use the words with their original definitions, culture implies all sorts of things about these ambiguous types of words…so best to run the farthest you can from them.

#5: Let Them Eat Zwiebach!  (Or Borscht, or Strudel, or Rollkucken, or… You Get the Picture!)

Facing a myriad of people who disagree with female pastors has actually been quite a humbling experience for me.  Today I was reflecting on how my inability to see things from the other person’s point of view is so counter-productive to what I really want my life’s aim to be about.  Here’s why:

There are some people who sincerely believe that God does not allow a woman leadership over a man.  Many of these people are not “women-haters” or do not see women as inferior, but they have come to that conclusion through careful dissection and Scriptural research.  My Edinburgh pastor recently stated, “society and culture often tell us that unless men and women are doing the exact same things they are not equal, but that’s not necessarily the case.”  And he’s right.  The woman is the one who carries the child to term and gives birth and she is the one who breastfeeds her, but that doesn’t make her any less of a daughter to her father and that doesn’t mean the father therefore has no responsibility and care over her.  A mother and father are similar and equal and yet incredibly different.

On the other hand, you meet people like me.  People who have also done massive amounts of research, who know the Biblical languages, who have read the Bible cover to cover on multiple occasions and in many different translations, and who have theological training and they believe that it’s fine for a woman to preach.  They see it as being a God-ordained ministry for both men or women and they recognize that calling is central so if the woman is called, why not?

Now in either one of these cases, what is ultimately the most important thing?  To serve and honour God.  One person comes to the conclusion that a woman shouldn’t preach because they want to respect God’s authority and His Word.  They feel like denying a woman this opportunity is ultimately God’s Will.  It’s how they serve God.

On the other hand, people like me believe that we can serve God both in and out of the pulpit regardless of our gender.  We trust that by doing so we are being faithful to God’s call upon our life.  We feel like to not speak, would set “fire to our bones” and would not be honouring all that God has given to us.

So then, who’s right?  Well, in a way both are.  When thought through correctly, both viewpoints are distilled into the same category: how to best live Biblically.  Both are about being faithful to the witness and identity of the church, but both witness in incredibly different ways.

Realistically, I think that when Christ comes back, He doesn’t want us to be squabbling over petty theological differences.  He wants us to spreading His Word and His message through our lifestyle choices.  He wants us to care for the “least of these,” not sit behind ivory towers writing theological treatises that probably don’t make a whole lot of difference in the end of the day.  Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for academic debates, but there’s an even bigger place for activist faith and true, life-giving and breathing Christ-centered spirituality.

So in the end of the day, let’s just throw aside our differences.  Let’s agree to disagree.  Let’s periodically put away our theological dictionaries, concordances, and interlinears, and let’s all eat a batch of zwiebach (or strudel or whatever other Mennonite food you want to insert here!)

Summation: I’ve you made it to the end of my long blog, congratulations.  You probably need zwiebach not only to proclaim peace with fellow debaters, but also just to get your strength and stamina back so you can read other nerdy writings at https://mennonerds.com/!  Just saying!

How to Evangelize When You Don’t Believe in Evangelism

Man giving a talk but only a dog is listening.  Today I celebrated my younger cousin’s wedding in Michigan with a number of my relatives and several of the bride and groom’s friends.  Summer is always buzzing because of wedding season.  This summer alone, my family has been invited to 7 weddings, and we know of at least 2 that are currently being planned for next year.  Weddings are a wonderful time of laughter, tears, and joy.  They are also a perfect example of telling a story.

In a wedding, the love story between the bride and groom is told in multiple ways.  Traditionally, the story includes not just the couple themselves, but also their families, their closest friends, their pastor, their church, and God.  The story is told repeatedly when the bride joins hands with her husband, when they are pronounced a couple under the union and Lordship of Christ, when they exchange their rings as a token of their affection and respect for one another, when they promise to love each other regardless of the difficulties and challenges that life together will bring, when they seal their vows with a kiss, and when they wear their shoes out on the dance floor.  Although I am a feminist and planning to do away with the majority of traditions in my own future wedding, I must admit that the parents also play an important role in this unique love dynamic between the bride and groom.

Historically, the groom went to seek the bride’s family’s permission for marriage.  This is not necessarily because the bride is “property” or “owned” by her mom and dad, but rather because the parents are the gatekeepers.  They are the ones who protect and nurture their daughter until someone else promises to do the same for her.  And they prove their love to their child by their approval and honouring her future husband.  The parents once again tell this same story when they walk their daughter down the aisle – sharing in one last moment and bond before she is forever wedded to a new family and invited into a new home.

Today, the pastor mentioned something I have never thought about before.  You will recall that I just mentioned I am a feminist and for years I have taken issue with the idea of a father walking his bride down the aisle.  I viewed this as seeing a woman as merely property and lording his authority over his daughter in a way that is not expected of a son.  Yet, today, the pastor mentioned that this is really a sign of how God formed Eve out of Adam’s breast, and brought her to him.  This natural companionship, fashioned by God as the ideal for human relationships, shows us how God – the Father, gave away the first bride, Eve.

Being at the wedding also encouraged me to think about evangelism in broader terms.  Yesterday, I met with the chaplain at my grandmother’s nursing home.  He and I ended up chatting for about half an hour and he asked me how I would describe evangelism.  I responded, “telling other people about Jesus and making disciples.”  But he gave me an altogether different definition.  He mentioned that evangelism is really all about telling a spiritual story.   It’s about sharing with others what God has done and is doing in your life (also called testimonies) and it’s about honouring God by living a life that tells about His creation and His good work even when our culture pressures us to go in a different direction.

I went to a fairly evangelical Bible College and it was instilled in us that we need to go and convert the masses.  I became frustrated because I noticed that quite a few (though certainly not all) Mennonite churches weren’t doing that.  In fact, when I confronted my pastors suggesting that they could do a whole lot more than they were willing to try, they made some remark about how Anabaptists have suffered severe persecution over the years and I need to be more understanding of the tradition they are coming out of.

I am willing to say that perhaps I don’t have that big of an understanding of religious persecution coming from the cushy west and maybe that makes me lack sensitivity.  However, in my opinion, persecution is not a reason to stop witnessing.  In fact, it is exactly BECAUSE of persecution, that many have come to know Christ.  When someone is willing to be bold in their declaration of Christ even though it may cost them property, status, wealth, or their life, others around them take note.  And I am pretty sure those who have lost their life for the cause would be greatly disappointed that those of us who have it easy are apathetic when it comes to evangelism.   In fact, one of my friends, a staunch atheist with absolutely no interest in religion at all mentioned to me that the reason she respects Christianity is because “if people were willing to die for something they believed to be the truth, maybe I should start taking this whole thing more seriously.”

Nevertheless, I’d like to suggest that if you are uncomfortable standing out in the middle of the street handing out tracts, preaching from a soapbox in the park, or going door-to-door, don’t worry.  That’s really not what it’s all about.

Instead, it’s about how we choose to live out our faith on a day-to-day basis.  When you experience a profound answer to prayer, it’s about raising your hands to heaven and thanking God rather than just rationally justifying how the event took place.  When your friend is struggling it’s about actually taking the time to pray for them, not just saying a bunch of “feel-good” words.  When you go about the most menial tasks – cooking for your children, cleaning the house for the fifth time that day, assisting an elderly person or someone with a disability with personal care, doing paperwork, writing a research proposal, seeking out funding for a grant – you respond to each person as if they were Christ in the flesh.  You don’t raise your voice in anger or protest, you don’t show signs of impatience or frustration – you take a moment to pause, ask the Lord for counsel, and receive His great wisdom.  Every act becomes one of worship.  Every bush is ablaze.  Every moment is sacred.

A few months ago I was on the bus about to meet with one of my church friends when all of a sudden a profound realization hit me.  Those of you who have me as a Facebook friend will probably have read about it:

Many people say that that they feel uncomfortable when it comes to evangelism.  They may think it’s backwards, stuffy, or arrogant to suggest that their way is the only correct one.  In a world that promotes individual choice and freedom of religious expression, you don’t want to be singled out as the “odd-kook who still believes this Jesus stuff.”  Yet, if we were to be honest with ourselves, almost everyone evangelizes in some way (even including non-religious people).  For example, you may have a favourite restaurant, movie, coffee shop, book, or hobby.  You may have a favourite park, picnic area, or tourist destination.  When you hear that your friend is travelling through a certain area and you know all about what that area has to offer, you generally would not hesitate to share your knowledge and your experience.  You wouldn’t hold back about which hotel to stay at, which restaurants to eat at, which scenic route to take, and which to avoid.  The best fish and chip place in Scotland is something that makes you happy.  It’s something you don’t want to keep to yourself.  It’s something you want to tell the world (and especially) those you care for about.  If it was so great, you might even have left a review on Trip Advisor.  Even in the business world, sharing positive experiences of a certain product or place is called a “testimonial” – it’s about witnessing to others about what you’ve seen, experienced, and learned and encouraging them to do the exact same.  If we don’t hold back when it comes to these trivial things in life, why on earth would we choose to keep the love of Christ a secret?  Why would we hide the greatest gift God gives to humanity just because we’re afraid of looking dumb?

Perhaps you are convinced that you need to tell the Biblical and spiritual story more often, but you don’t know where to start.  Perhaps you are a bit shy and introverted, or you don’t have much experience sharing your faith, or you come from a tradition that has discouraged this.  Don’t worry, you can start small.  Think about all the things the world requires of us.  It wants us to buy into certain cultural norms of how to look, act, and think.  It wants us to become a slave to materialism, militarism, and oppression.  It wants us to believe that certain cultural and ethnic groups are preferred over others.  That certain socio-economic statuses and careers are greater than what most people achieve.  But if you are truly convinced about telling the spiritual story, you can see this in another way.  You can take that extra moment to get outside your comfort zone and to smile at the homeless man or woman you are passing on your way to church.  You can allow yourself to speak up about causes you really feel passionate about.  You can allow yourself to fan into flame a system that sees all people are relevant and important.  You can work on minimizing yourself (even though culture teaches us to be pretty self-absorbed) and instead use social media and networking to encourage and build others up.  It might not seem like you are sharing the Gospel, but you are and you are doing it in a way that is far more relevant than your average soapbox preacher.

We all tell stories in our lives.  Stories of love, stories of grace, stories of forgiveness, and stories of peace.  Oftentimes we tell more than one story a day and to more than one person.  Being a Christian is not only about continuing those stories, but allowing other people to enter into the story with us.  Permitting them to also play an important role, and ultimately asking God to be the divine Scriptwriter.  What is the story God is calling you to tell today?

Boundless Possibilities (Dismantling the Myth of the “Good Little Church Girl”)

Good  You are capable.  You are worthy.  You are lovely.  You are special.  Perhaps these words sound foreign to you, but they are true.  God still whispers them to you in the middle of the night.  Can you hear Him?  God still affirms your worth and your identity that is solely rooted in Him.  You used to believe it.  You really did.  When you were a child, you used to think “yes, I’m someone extra special.  I’m someone who is going big places.  I’m someone important.”  Perhaps you even thought about this too much.  Perhaps you liked to be the centre of attention.  Perhaps you are still craving to be at the centre, but your craving is no longer innocent.  What happened?  What happened to that sweet-faced, goal oriented youngster who no one could bring down?  What happened to that energetic child who thought anything was possible as long as one remained focused on the end result?  LIFE.  Life happened.  Life threw you some curve balls.  Somehow, someone along the way, spoke lies into your heart and soul that took root and never left.  Somehow, years later you look in the mirror and no longer see who God sees – you see what the Enemy – that big bad bully, wanted you to see.  You no longer see a white wedding dress symbolizing purity and delight, you see a tattered, dirty, worn-out, holey shirt.  And you’ve come to accept it.  You’ve come to internalize all the blame you’ve received.  You’ve begun to think that others around you are more worthy and more loveable than you are.  And you’ve never quite been able to find your way back.  In fact, you’re probably still out there searching…searching for who knows what.  Searching for identity.  Searching for peace.  Searching for purpose.  Searching to come home.  But you’ve never found the right path.  Sure, you’ve tried all sorts of things: empty friendships, meaningless relationships, money, power, and fame.  Perhaps you’ve even tried religion – a passive acceptance of a set of rigidly held beliefs, but in the end of the day, all seemed vain.  And now you’ve come to this place: devastated, disillusioned, distracted.  Completely drained, exhausted, spent.  But it really doesn’t matter how you got here, or why you are here now.  I’m just happy you came.  I’m ecstatic because I want to share a special secret with you: a secret that will unlock the prison of bitterness and anxiety at who you need to be and will open up a gateway of boundless possibilities.  I’m happy because in these next few minutes, I’m going to give you the opportunity to move past a false perception of yourself and into the loving embrace of a Wounded Saviour.  If you’re willing to embark on this journey, please come right in.  Let me make you a cup of tea, give you some scones (or zwiebach – whichever you prefer), and let me tell you what you may not have heard for a very long time…and perhaps have never been aware of.

You Don’t Have to Be a Good Little Church Girl.

I’d like to step aside and speak only to the women for a minute.  Being a woman, and more specifically, being a woman in full-time vocational ministry is TOUGH.  Oftentimes, guys just don’t understand that.  Along with some proof-texting conservatives, we also have to contend with society (and old-school Christianity’s) beliefs about women.  You see, women are taught from a young age to be “lady-like” but what exactly does that mean?  Oftentimes it means being submissive rather than argumentative, looking pretty rather than plain, and carrying on a conversation with grace and eloquence.  Of course, I believe that as Christians, we should strive to be kind, compassionate, and considerate.  But I also know that there will definitely be times when we are called to be anything BUT that stereotypical ideal of a “good little church girl.”  In fact, there will be plenty of times when we are called upon to be rebels, to be rough, to ride motorcycles, and to wear leathers.

I just got back from spending a day with a group of young children at a nearby church’s Vacation Bible School.  I’ve been in children’s ministry for the majority of my life and along with the enjoyment of reliving my own childhood, there is one thing in particular I love about kids.  They are real.  They have faith.  They believe.  They have not let the world knock them down yet.  When you ask a child what he or she wants to be when they grow up, they say the most outrageous things: a pilot, an astronaut, a ballerina, a pop star, a cowboy (or cowgirl).  They have not yet learned to internalize criticism and doubt.  In the majority of cases, most of these young people will never accomplish their first dream, but that doesn’t matter to a five year old.  All that matters is that the dream is there and even if there’s a 1% possibility of it occurring, they are willing to fight to keep that dream alive.

Yet as we get older, we start to make excuses for why we aren’t following our dreams and usually those voices come from cultural expectations – not God’s… not even our own. When I was 4, I informed my rather conservative church that I wanted to be a pastor and I was shot down.  I was told women can’t do that.  That’s a boy’s job.  But I didn’t take it.  I ploughed right ahead.  If that was God’s calling on my life, I was willing to do anything to get there.  Now, 20 years later, I find myself easily falling prey to those same ideas.  I find myself rationalizing not putting forth a better effort to find a pastorate because “being a woman makes it harder.”  I find myself willing to settle for less than what God has called me to do because I don’t think I can fit into the mould of an obedient and submissive female pastor under the strong leadership of a male dominated structure.

What is causing me (and possibly you) from going back to our first love?  To our precious early goals?  Usually fear.  Or apathy.  Or… I hate to say this: laziness.  If we truly knew how much God has in store for us, how much God has planned for us, and how that mission is not going to be seen to full completion until we’re willing to take our part…I think it might change our underlying disobedience.  But unfortunately for many of us, unless someone is willing to shake us up and make that happen, we stay stuck in the rut we find ourselves in.  We don’t move.

But if you find yourself in that position, let me speak a word of encouragement to you.  The majority of the women in the Bible were BAD GIRLS.  And you know what?  God loved them because of it.  Esther was a BAD GIRL – she was scared silly, but when the time came, she spoke with authority and became assertive.  Because of that, the Jewish race was preserved and God was pleased.  Ruth was a BAD GIRL – she wasn’t willing to take the easy path of finding a husband, she wanted to play by the rules, so (non-feminists might want to close their ears) she PURSUED a man.  That’s right – pursued him in a culture where that just wasn’t done.  Deborah was a BAD GIRL – she basically called a man out for not having the courage to do what he needed to do and she shamed him until he took action.  So if you’re not the stereotypical “good little church girl” take heart.  You’re in good company.  And God will still use you, as long as you are willing for that to happen!

You Can Do Anything (As Long As Christ is In It).

Another incident that I found refreshing during my time with the kids today was reading one of the younger girl’s t-shirts.  This eight year old was sporting a shirt that had a variety of different adjectives describing what a girl is like.  Some of the words were not only surprising to me, but refreshing.  Here are a few examples: Girls are healthy, assertive, know what they want, fun, confident, dream-chasers.  You don’t need to sit on the sidelines and let the boys play rugby and football – you also have the opportunity to go out and do the same things.  It’s an unfortunate reality that young girls are told there are certain activities for “boys and others for “girls.”  Really, either gender should be permitted to participate in whatever game, sport, or club they want if they enjoy it and especially if they have the ability to excel.

Being healthy doesn’t just refer to physical health – but also to emotional and mental stamina and spiritual favour.  Being healthy means accepting (and loving) being in one’s own skin.  Keeping healthy means that if you’re a woman in full-time ministry you have that support network that enables you to find camaraderie in what can so often be considered a “boy’s world.”  It means having other women mentors who are also in full-time leadership and it means not losing your cool when proof-texters try to convince you that you are somehow sinning for following God’s call on your life.  That’s really what being a woman is about.  It’s what makes a female pastor come alive.

God Remembers Pain.

If you ever feel left-out and lonely, take a piece of advice from my good Edinburgh friend who recently talked some sense into me.  If you were overlooked or if someone failed to invite you to something, know this: Jesus was also deserted.  When He needed His disciples the most, they fled.  They were nowhere to be seen.  He was in Florida and they were in California.  He was in Nevada and they were in New Mexico.  He was in Edinburgh and they were in Inverness.  He was in the Maritimes they were in the Rockies.  Well, not quite, but you get the picture.  He was absolutely betrayed by His closest companies, His confidants.  So Christ knows all about getting the boot… but that didn’t stop Him from knowing what God thought about Him or how God saw His mission.  It didn’t put a moratorium on His life-given calling that only He was capable of achieving.  If anything, it made Him want it even more.  It motivated Him to pursue God’s dream and plan for His life… and even when He periodically lost the strength to keep going, He prayed that God might renew that vision – sustain Him with the presence of love.  And guess what?  God came through.

So next time, you’re tempted to berate yourself or to tarnish your own self-worth for something as trivial as not getting an invitation here’s a tip:  Why not ask Jesus how He felt when He was rejected?  Why not ask Christ how He feels right now when we still choose to disobey and walk the other way on a daily basis?  Our Heavenly Father longs to be part of every single aspect of our lives – even the parts we would never consider.  He wants us to seek His input about financial decisions, family matters, career changes, and geographical moves…yet so often we don’t do that.  We’d rather just go to our friends or family and ask them for their opinions.  I bet it makes God very sad that when He’s edging to get invited to our parties, we keep Him on the sidelines and only mention something in passing once the pictures are already posted up on Facebook.  When my friend put it to me this way: WOW!  It totally changed my perception.  Don’t get me wrong, I still have insecurity issues.  I still feel sad about not getting invited to things (and I’ve written other blog posts about that) BUT I have never felt the same way again.  Even though I’m sad, I just remember how sad Christ is about all the times I’ve done the same to Him, then He and I usually have quite an interesting chat about it and generally that perks me right back up again.

Well, thank you for coming to my little cozy nook for a nice cup of tea.  I hope you have enjoyed your stay.  I hope it has provided you with grace and strength – a new outlook.  You are capable.  You are worthy.  You are loveable.  You are holy.  You are whole.  Somewhere along the way, you might have ceased believing this.  Perhaps you don’t believe it now.  But I hope and pray that one day you will.  And in the dead of night when all is quiet and all seems lost.  When you feel abandoned, when you feel you can no longer fit into society’s pressures of you, when you feel that you’re not a “good little church girl” He is whispering to you.  Can you hear it?  He is saying: you are my precious daughter.  You are my beloved.  Come away with Me, My darling, My dove.  I will rejoice over you with singing.  You are perfect in my eyes.

Lone Woman in the Big Wide World – Why Travel Solo?

cheering woman hiker open arms at mountain peak cliff   The day the travel bug bit me there was no going back.  I went on my first overseas’ trip when I was 18 and ever since then my mom has joked that my life’s motto should be “Have passport, will travel.  Have Bible, will preach.”

There are many reasons why travelling abroad is a life-giving and wonderful experience.  It opens up your horizons, shows you a different way of living, introduces you to other cultures, and brings you to places of natural beauty.  Furthermore, it doesn’t always necessarily have to be hindered by cost.  If you’re a good planner and excel at making connections, you will soon find that you have friends all around the world who open up their home to you to bunk in at night while also exploring the sites.

Yet, being single, and especially being a single woman often raises a certain level of alarm.  Many people will discourage a single woman from going abroad on her own due to safety and cultural factors.  I have been the recipient of such over-control many times myself and having been to some remote and somewhat dangerous locations, I will be the first to admit that in certain cases bringing along a companion might be in your best interest.  Nevertheless, being single should not inhibit you from exploring all the world has to offer.  Thinking back to all my overseas’ experiences, I have never been on an international trip with people I knew well, but I have always gone with a group.  This past year, I travelled to Edinburgh, Scotland (and from there took many side trips to various places around Scotland, England, Ireland, and Wales) all on my own.  In fact, I can honestly say that I have never flown so much in my life as I flew this past year.  Travelling abroad alone was definitely one of the most formative and important steps I have ever taken and it has started me on the path of continuing to solo-travel.  Solo-travelling might not be for everyone, but it’s well worth some thought-out consideration.  Below, I’d like to suggest a few reasons WHY solo-travelling might be something to try out and also give a few tips for how single women (and possibly even single men) can be safe while doing so.

REASONS TO TRY SOLO-TRAVELLING

#1: Discover More About Yourself and the World at Your Own Pace

I am probably the farthest thing from being an introvert, so it may surprise you that I am so in favour of going on a trip alone.  If you’re as extroverted as I am this suggestion may raise a few questions: what if I get bored on my own?  What if I get lost?  What if I want to share my experience with someone else?  Or my personal favourite: who will take the pictures?  Travelling alone comes with some challenges for sure.  When I went to Wales and Ireland, I took mostly selfies, pictures without me in them, or had to ask a random stranger to take a shot (and sometimes they said no).  That to me, is one of the drawbacks from going on a trip by yourself.  However, there are many other benefits.  For example, solo-travelling permits you to create your own schedule and then change it up at will.  I’m a planner so I usually sit down a month before my holidays and write out all the activities I’d like to partake in when abroad.  Yet, being alone means that if I suddenly walk past a museum I like or an art gallery I want to try out, I can just change my plans and do so without asking another person’s permission.  Solo-travelling also means that you get to choose what time to wake up, eat, and sleep.  It also is the perfect way to make a statement: that you don’t always need to have someone around you to have a good time.  It’s perfectly fine to go to a nice restaurant or the movies on your own – even if society wants to tell you something different.

As an aside: I do occasionally go on trips with other people and that can also be quite nice.  But the real kicker is knowing what each person in your group is interested in and wants to do.  When I’ve been on trips with friends it occasionally puts a strain on our relationship because I see a different side of them.  They tend to be more relaxed and chill – wanting to veg out and take in a few rays, and I’m just the opposite.  I feel like if we’re going away, we may as well push ourselves hard from sun up to sun down to see all the sites.  In this case, you might need to work on compromise.  Perhaps each having a large block of free time and then meeting up again at dinner.  But then again, if that’s what you’re after – why not just travel solo?

Also, I should be careful not to be misleading here.  I have many friends in England and across Scotland.  So even though I might have gone there on my own, it’s not like I went 2 weeks without any form of human interaction.  I usually plan a day or two with my friends and bunk over, then I’m off to the next biggest city, and eventually I’ll run into even more friends.  That’s one of the benefits of planning a trip yourself.

#2: Becoming Approachable to Other Travellers

There is a certain camaraderie that takes place with other tourists when you’re a solo-traveller and you might just be surprised at who you get to meet as a result.  Staying at a hostel is a great idea.  It’s not something I did much of until I spent a year in Europe, but many hostels are waaaaayyy cheaper than a hotel or a B&B and most of the time you get better service.  There are people from all sorts of different walks of life in a hostel, many of them are also solo-travellers.  If you see a lonely person, just walk up to him or her and strike up a conversation.  In some cases, you might even end up having company for the day because you both wanted to see a certain museum or a concert.  This works out well for me because when I’m with my friends, I tend to just gravitate towards them.  Even though I’m rather extroverted, I don’t really go out of my way to talk to complete strangers, but being a solo-traveller forces me to take that extra step outside my comfort zone.

Here’s a perfect example.  One day I was at the movies alone and I met a random girl.  We ended up talking about 20 minutes while waiting for our movie and discovered that we had a few things in common.  We exchanged phone numbers and ended up meeting on a few occasions to see a movie and have coffee together.  At one point, we discovered that we are both writers so I even helped her set up her first blog and taught her some of the techie sort of things.  This would never have happened if I was with my friend, but being alone made me more approachable and I made a new friend.

NOTE: Hostels have a rather “hit-or-miss” reputation.  You’ll get some really nice and fancy ones, but you’ll also get a few dodgy ones.  When travelling to unknown territory, I always do my research.  I go online and look up reviews – I make sure that the hostel has high rates for cleanliness and security.  If there is an option to just bunk in with girls, that’s usually what I do. If you know someone who has travelled to that region before, you can also ask them for their advice.  Another thing that I have done at times is to email a local church – sometimes this has resulted in a nice dinner and even a free hotel room at one place!  I work for L’Arche so I am fortunate enough to be able to bunk in at any other L’Arche around the world… you might not have that type of luxury, but there are other Christian retreat centres, intentional communities, and even hostels that might be more than willing to let you spend the night and give you a few meals at a rather reasonable cost.  Plus, it’s a great way to network with others who have similar beliefs and interests to you and maybe even to get to experience something different.

#3: Turn Your Trip Into an Impromptu Mission’s Trip

When I’m on holidays, I don’t necessarily go with the intention of converting souls, but as a Christian, you should always be prepared for that reality.  Here’s a perfect example.  Before leaving Scotland, I chose to spend a few days up in L’Arche Inverness (about 4 hours from my base in Edinburgh).  I emailed the L’Arche up there and they were happy to provide me with room and board and I even ended up going out to the pub with a few of the assistants (remember: in Scotland going to the pub is basically going for a coffee!).  While at the pub in a relaxed environment, I made a connection with the assistants.  On the way back, I ended up just walking with one of the girls while the others had gone ahead.  Somehow our conversation turned deep.  She told me about some of the painful things she experienced in her own life and how she was seeking God through them.  Because we were alone, I also was able to reach into my mind to pluck out a similar situation and explain how God redeemed me through it.  I was able to see how sorrow can lead to salvation and encourage her in the same way.  Once again, this is where being solo made me more approachable and a better ambassador.  If I was with a friend, I might not have shared for fear of how I would be perceived or to keep the conversation even and not one-sided.

Here’s another thing.  As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been on many trips with people I hardly knew well at all but who were students at my Bible College and Seminary.  Since we were basically “forced” into these situations where none of us really knew the others well, it created a special bond between us.  We might not have become “best friends,” but we certainly became friends.  I have been for coffees, lunches, and other events with these travelling buddies and we always have each other to rehash funny moments of the trip together.  In some cases, I probably would not have become friends with these individuals had it not been for the special bond that travelling creates between companions.

HOW TO BE SAFE AS A SOLO-TRAVELLER

As I mentioned, solo-travelling has many perks, but there are also a few things you need to be aware of if you’re going somewhere on your own.  Here are a few lessons I’ve learned for the road:

  • Be Smart – It is very easy for men to express interest in a single woman travelling on her own. In some cases, she may be seen as vulnerable or naïve and in certain cultures (primarily Middle-Eastern and some European countries) men can be very straight-forward and romantically aggressive.  Be cautious and keep your wits about you.  Don’t go out to a restaurant with some random guy you don’t know – that always ends badly.  Keep yourself in well-lit areas that are teeming with life.  Even if you like nature (like I do), you can easily find yourself a walking group or outdoor activity with other people nearby.
  • Know the Culture – In some countries it is considered immodest and improper for a woman to travel alone. Know this before you arrive in the country and arrange for a chaperone if need be.  Understand how women need to dress in these contexts and try to respect those around you.  Do your research ahead of time to know if there are any areas where a woman should not be on her own.
  • Avoid Travelling Aimlessly – I get it. I like to explore.  Some days, I take the bus by myself with no real intention of getting off anywhere special just because I want to explore the city.  But you need to understand the when you’re walking around without a target in mind, you’re easier prey for unscrupulous men.  So do your research.  Have a general idea of where you want to go and where you want to end up and plan your route accordingly.  In some cases, this may mean not being out too late at night or only going somewhere close by your hostel or hotel.  I am a feminist, but I cannot stress safety enough.  Your trip will always be much more enjoyable when you know you’re playing it safe and not taking needless risks.  If you happen to be out late at night, keep your wits about you.  Once when I was in Edinburgh, I was walking back to my house late in the evening and a drunk guy made a pass at me and kept walking beside me.  I felt highly uncomfortable with his nature, so I needed to state very clearly that I had no intentions of having anything to do with him.  Then at the nearest junction, I zig-zagged back to my house.  This is one of the best solutions for you in this type of situation.  Don’t run straight on, zig-zag.  Take an unpredictable side-street path and once you get back alert someone of what has happened.  It’s also always a good idea to carry a phone with you.  Even if you don’t have connection in the country, whipping out your phone and pretending to talk to a friend while you walk home alone in the night is usually a good measure of protection.  If you do have a connection, talking to a live friend will at least calm your nerves: I used to do it quite frequently when I was cutting through the park late into the evening.

I hope that the following points give you some good information and suggestions for when you decide to travel on your own.  Remember: be wise, be safe, and have the time of your life!  Bon voyage!!