Experience Vs. Theology

In June of last year, the hardest season of my life began. As I concluded my year of service as the Discipleship Pastor at my home church, God spoke a whisper in my heart. Though I had an inkling about one immediate consequence of that whisper, I had no clue of the ramifications that would result from it. Even now, I’m sure many are still unknown.

Within a matter of weeks, I moved 600 miles from home to continue my studies at seminary. I had many plans, but God didn’t seem to care for many of them. As God decimated my idea of safety and allowed every aspect of my life to be marred, I found myself in a place where I had never been: caught between my experience and my theology. They no longer matched.

The God I had known relationally for so long, had studied for years, and had taught so many people about seemed different from the God I was currently experiencing. His actions appeared separate from His character. And as I shared my story with others, I discovered many who felt this same tension. It caused me to ask myself the question: What am I supposed to do when my experience is in tension with my theology? When the God I see in Scripture seems so different from the God I’m choosing to follow now? 

I’m sure there are ample responses and possible answers to this question, which are likely unique for each person. But for me, God kept telling me to stop trying to do something to change my circumstances and perception. I wanted to be able to explain my problems somehow, when in actuality there was only one who fully understood them—and He wasn’t me. I was trying to defend God, when finally He helped me realize that was never my job. There is no way that God can be fully rationalized, for even when we may be able to explain Him intellectually, we are not able to fully rationalize Him to our hearts. This requires faith, many say. Yet that’s not really my job either. My responsibility is to be faithful, yes. But how can I have faith without God first demonstrating that He is worth having faith in?

I was reminded of how many times people in Scripture called out to God, pleading for Him to show Himself strong for the sake of His name. David begged this of God constantly, like in Psalm 143:11, “For Your name’s sake, O LORD, preserve my life! In your righteousness bring my soul out of trouble!”

I am utterly powerless to defend God, whether it’s to myself or to others. But I believe that He’s strong enough to defend Himself, and that He actually quite enjoys it.

So when what I know about God does not match God in my current life circumstances, when my theology is at odds with my experience, I have to learn to embrace the tension. I choose to trust that He’ll come through and redeem Himself to me. What stinks is that He might let me sit in the tension and distress for a while. But if I allow for the tension and let God be God, He will prove Himself and come through. And if He ever doesn’t, I’ll let you know.

“And those who know your name put their trust in you, for you, O LORD, have not forsaken those who seek you.” – Psalm 9:10

**Since this is an issue that God must deal uniquely with for each individual, I wonder, what have you learned about the times when your theology and experience are in tension? I’d love to hear your story and/or thoughts, so leave your comments below.

My Full Life

It’s been a very full day. But the great kind of full. I read somewhere recently about how much busyness is an illness of our ever-rushing society, so I try not to be busy. Even though I have a lot of duties like school, work, and church that fill my schedule—often very close to max capacity—I don’t consider my life busy. Busyness exudes the idea of running without the ability to stop, of having so many planned hours in a week that there is no time for a coffee date with a friend, of having no room for the unexpected. I choose not to live like that. So no, my day today was not busy. It was full.

Why was my day so full? Because of the great community I have the pleasure of being a part of. Out of the countless personality tests that I’ve been required to take throughout my academic career, one element is always consistent for me: I’m a people person. This means that for me to fully be me, I need to surround myself with great community. But my extroversion is not the only reason I need community. For yes, even introverts (contrary to popular belief) need community.

We need community because it’s a part of our DNA—and not just our biological makeup. We need community because God made us to be like Him, and the very essence of God is community. Think about it: God is not a single person; He is THREE in ONE. And each person is inherently defined by his relationship to the others. Just like you need three notes to have a musical chord, you need the three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—to have God. When God created mankind in His image, he started with Adam and said it wasn’t good for him to be alone. If God had only made Adam, then Adam would not have been made in the communal image of God. He would have always been missing a part of his nature and who he was made to be. Thus, when we are outside of community, we are not fully ourselves. But when we are in community, we are most us. We become the best us.

As I’ve been engaging in community recently, I’m realizing that it makes me the best me. Like when a customer at work today commented on how patient I was, noticing that patience is rare in our culture. I was only able to be patient today because I’m surrounded by people who bring out the best me. They embrace me, love me, inspire me, and motivate me. They affirm the qualities and strengths that God has given me for His kingdom. And they let me know the qualities that I lack or where I’m weak, so that I don’t spend my energy pursuing the wrong things. This is freedom. And freedom is full.

So maybe today, I was able to experience a piece of what Jesus talked about in John 10:10 when he said he came to give us full life. I can’t think of anything better!

My Confession

I write today with a broken heart. But it’s a good brokenness. The kind where God has to break something which seems whole in order to refashion it to be like Him.

I don’t know the way God works in your life, but in mine it’s all about seasons. For one season, he’ll give me extra joy, contentment, fullness, and grace. But soon, He leads me through times of sorrow, inadequacy, lack, and utter dependency. The ironic part about God’s seasons is that during most there is both harvest and pruning, sowing and reaping. While I’m experiencing the abundant fruit of the last season, He’s planting and pruning areas for the next.

So what season is this? It’s one of deep pruning. Within the last few months, I’ve experienced a lot of life. From the loss of my grandfather, leaving my job, going on a missions trip, moving to a new state, leaving my entire community of family and friends, and starting school, it seems that there have been transitions in every part of my life. I’ve spent a lot of time facing the truth of my own heart and dealing with the ugliness. During a time of abundance, it’s hard to see the weeds and the seeds that were choked out underneath the surface, but as my life has been stripped down, God has been revealing the barrenness.

So here’s my confession:

I’m a perfectionist. I’ve built my whole life and self-worth on performance, the things that I do well. The good part about this is that I love to grow. I love to be a part of always making things better than they are now. And because of this drive, I’ve experienced lots of “success” and really exciting accomplishments. Spiritually speaking, I most love the change and growth that comes from seeing a broken life made new. There’s nothing quite as exciting as healing from pain and depravity, seeing transformation to wholeness in a person’s life. Since I love this process, this is the most important goal that I’m driven to pursue: life change.

But here’s the problem. Building my life on accomplishment is a big house with a weak foundation. No matter how tall it gets, it’s always susceptible to crumbling down. Finding my value in what I do well keeps me from finding my value in Christ. I have a hard time accepting that I have intrinsic worth, regardless of my productivity, because I am created in the image of our most incredible God.

And here’s what it looks like in real life:

When I mess up, I’m devastated. Problems that I can’t fix depress me. I have a hard time accepting that which I have no control over. Mistakes are crushing, even when they’re slight. I have a tendency to take too much responsibility for things that aren’t mine to take, which undermines those around me. Because I’m not okay with my own weaknesses, this can cause me to have a hard time feeling compassion for other’s shortcomings. I start to think that the reason I can do things well is because of my own hard work, which leads me to put a heavy weight on those around me to work harder for what they want. But that doesn’t work. This only creates legalism, which may look good on the outside but is devastating to the heart.

So God’s been taking me through a hard process. He’s stripping away my confidence in the areas where I’ve found my identity. He’s reminding me that they’re gifts He gave me, but they’re not who I am. What if I couldn’t communicate well? What if I had really poor social skills? What if I was unable to work? Does this mean that I have no value? As St. Paul would say, “Absolutely not!”

I can just imagine Jesus standing with me in the middle of an incredible view of nature. As we would look around at the trees, birds, grass, hills, sun, flowers, clouds, and all else, he would point to them and tell me what God does to carefully provide for each one. Then he would look at me and say,

“Starla, all of these are important to me. After all, I created them, provide for them, and enjoy them! But even as much as I care for each, you’re set apart from the rest because I created you to be like me. You’re the only one that I view as a mirror to see my own reflection. So how much more valuable are you? And yet I require nothing from you. I only desire a relationship. I just want you.”

I’m having a hard time accepting that. I have a hard time with the fact that I would be just as valuable to God if I were in a hospital bed having no cognitive function as I am when a pastor or seminary student, working in a church and contributing as much as I can. The gifts He’s given me were meant to be a joy, not a burden. They’re an invitation rather than a requirement.

So what does all this mean? I don’t know yet. But what I’m hearing the most is God saying, “Just be.” I’m trying to let go of the pressure to create certain results, choosing instead to listen for God when He says, “I love you regardless.”

Searching for a Mentor

A few summers ago, I found myself sitting on a rock in a creek with a journal in my hand. I was part of leading a discipleship program for junior high and high schoolers and we all had one task: write about what you want from God this year. So what was I asking God for? A mentor.

Mentoring was not something that I alone wanted. I’ve heard this same request from many college students and young adults. At the time, I found this search for a mentor pretty tricky. Not only is finding a mentor difficult, but as a young woman going into ministry I found it particularly challenging for a number of reasons. 1) Finding a senior pastor who is willing to let you hang out with them as they go about particular tasks is tricky. Especially since many things a pastor does are very personal and confidential, such as prayer time with God or counseling a married couple. 2) As a woman, it’s hard to navigate the boundaries of being with a mentor who is most likely a man. So I probably needed a woman. But 3) there are not very many woman senior pastors. So how should I find one?

During this time in my life, I was resolved that it was the mentor’s job to open themselves up to a mentee. But I wasn’t around anyone offering this kind of relationship. Then I realized that I did in fact have a mentor, a woman who had been mentoring me my whole life: my mother. Was she a senior pastor of a church? Nope. But she was (and is) a phenomenal woman of God who taught me what it means to follow Jesus and grow into a whole and healthy person. (Plus, the fact that she’s a licensed and practicing therapist has taught me A LOT!!!) I’ve never found the exact kind of mentoring relationship I was originally looking for, but God did provide several other relationships with incredible leaders who have mentored me in the last few years, including my pastors of Lighthouse Assembly of God in Marion, IN, Jerry and Paula Gallaway, and the incredible men I had the opportunity to work for at Indiana Wesleyan in the Dean of the Chapel office, Rev. Dr. Jim “Umfundisi” Lo and Rev. Dr. Pat Hannon. These four individuals taught me exponentially about life, leadership, and ministry during my senior year of college. And, even though they’re all busy, have opened the door to me so that I can contact them any time. I treasure them in my heart, and am sure that they will continue to hear from me as I continue to journey through ministry.

Now, in the past year or so, I’m noticing a shift in my life and relationships: instead of only being the one seeking a mentor, I now find myself mentoring others. This is the perfect sign of growth and health: using what God has given me to invest in others. This has also given me another perspective on mentoring, which is the point of this blog entry. I want to share some nuggets on what I’ve learned from mentoring relationships as both the mentee and the mentor. So wherever you are at in your journey, I hope you can take something from this.

1) Finding a Mentoring Relationship

When I was looking for a mentor, I got really frustrated, because I was convinced that it was the job of the mentor to open herself up to the mentee. Then when I found myself on the mentoring side of things, I discovered that I was assuming it was the mentee’s job to ask me for mentoring. So here’s what I discovered: no matter my position, I was always expecting someone else to take the initiative, which means that most likely, everyone else probably assumed the same thing. So here’s my conclusion: if you recognize a potential mentor or mentee, make the first move. DON’T WAIT FOR THE OTHER PERSON.

  • Mentees: If you find someone that you’d like to mentor you, ask them. They may know you well or not at all, so I understand it may be intimidating to all of the sudden come out at ask them to mentor you. Instead, ask them for an appointment. Ask them for 30 minutes to an hour of their time, and tell them you’ll bring coffee. Or, if they’re not local, just ask if you can call them for about 10 minutes, and ask when they’re most available. Most people will shy away if you ask them to mentor you because they won’t feel adequate, but if you just ask them if it’s okay to get together sometime, they’ll be more open. They’ll be mentoring you whether they know it or not!
  • Mentors: I was once having a conversation with a young man and told him that he should find a mentor. A few weeks later, I let him know I was willing to mentor him since he was interested in areas within my expertise. His response? “I was waiting for you to ask.” As a leader, I should constantly be looking out for others whom I can teach to replace me. When I find a potential person, I don’t have to do all the work. Instead, simply saying, “Hey, if you ever need anything, feel free to stop by my office, call, or email me,” let’s them know I’m available and want to build a relationship with them. After that, it’s in the mentee’s hands, but when the time’s right, they know they can come to me. Some people will act immediately, while others may wait a few months until they feel that they need something. But eventually, you’ll find yourself surrounded by those who want to be invested in.

2) Who Do I Look For?

Sometimes we know we want a mentor or a mentee, but don’t even know where to start. Wherever you’re at, be intentionally observant about each person you interact with and see if they have the following characteristics.

  • Mentees: When looking for a mentor, pay attention to people who make you stop and think, “When I grow up, I want to be like them.” They should be a person you trust, who you think will take time to listen when needed, but also will answer questions when you ask. (And here’s a note, take the time to prepare questions and ask good ones!) They should be a person that makes you say, “If I were just half the person they are, I’d be thrilled!”
  • Mentors: Look for people who have qualities that remind you of you. They may be complete opposites of you in many ways, but in certain areas you understand how they think or why they want what they do. For me, I see myself in many different people: the intellectually astute, the emotionally sensitive, the spiritually hungry, etc. Most people have entirely different backgrounds than me–like the young man who has been to jail multiple times and used to have a drug problem–but where it counts, our hearts are similar.

3) Age doesn’t matter

I’m only 23 years old, but have found myself in relationships where people more than twice my age say they’ve learned from something I’ve said or done. And on the other side, I’ve also found myself learning from the simple faith of a child. When it comes to growth, age does not equal maturity. We witness this all of the time in church when in a matter of months the new, passionate Christian surpasses the one who’s been going to church their entire life. Maturity comes to those who are willing and eager to grow and learn–to those who are teachable. So this works on both ends. The mentor and mentee alike MUST be teachable. When they’re both learning, age doesn’t matter.

4) Use Wisdom and Discernment, But Don’t Discriminate By Gender

For a very long time, I only looked for mentors who were female. I put so much emphasis on creating proper boundaries, that I worried about having a male mentor. While this is justified to a certain extent, the majority of people who have mentored me are men. Did I plan this? No. But they were the people God put in my life during important seasons who listened and shared wisdom that directed my decisions. Just because boundaries can be tricky doesn’t mean we should neglect relationships because of them. God put His image in males and females, which means that no one can share His image by himself or herself. We need each other. Now, there are certainly situations that should be avoided, but there are also plenty of opportunities that are perfectly acceptable and productive. Don’t miss out on what someone has to offer merely because their gender doesn’t match your ideal.

I’ve noticed this trend not only while looking for a mentor, but also while mentoring. One of the surprises I came across this year was how many young men God put in my life to teach. On several instances I found myself in a restaurant or group surrounded by young men as we discussed spiritual issues. The biggest takeaway for a mentoring relationship with someone of another gender is this: when in doubt, add someone else. If a situation is coming up where you may feel uncomfortable one-on-one, ask a friend to join your meeting. The more the merrier!

5) How Do I Mentor?

There can be a lot of pressure when it comes to being someone’s mentor, but mentoring does not have to be a big ordeal. So here are some guidelines for both mentors and mentees:

  1. Ask Questions. Mentoring is about going through life together. Some relationships will be more personal and closer than others, but make sure you’re being intentional by asking questions. Ask about the other person’s life. Ask how they’re doing. Ask questions about something you’re interested in or want to learn about. Just get started, and be intentional about your conversations. Before planned meetings, think about and prepare good questions to help direct the conversation.
  2. LISTEN! When you ask a question, make sure you’re taking the time to listen to their answer. Be intently engaged in the conversation. Also keep in mind that not all people are good at articulating their thoughts. So make sure you’re listening not only to what they’re actually saying, but also what they’re TRYING to say. When you listen well, you’ll pay attention to body language, tone, and the Holy Spirit, and you’ll probably hear things that the person did not even realize they were saying.
  3. Be intentional. One of the most important things to do in order to have a productive mentoring relationship is to be intentional. This doesn’t mean spending every waking moment together. Rather, it means planning and preparation. Plan time together, write down questions when you’re going throughout your day that you want their insight on, sit down and write an email, send a purposeful text message of encouragement (but never send a text that just says “hey” or “what’s up”–that’s just a waste of time! Honestly, most texts like that just seem pointless to me so I don’t even respond. This communicates to me that you’re bored and have nothing better to do. If you don’t have a purpose with your text, I’m not going to work to create purpose out of it.). You don’t need a lot of time to be in a mentoring relationship, you simply need to be willing and let the other person know when and how you’re accessible. Maybe it’s only for 15 minutes a month, but if you’re intentional with that time, it’ll still be incredibly beneficial for both.

Well, there are a handful of things I’ve learned about mentoring. Obviously, this is something I’ve thought about a lot, but why is it so important? I’ll leave that to one of my favorite Bible verses to answer:

“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” (Proverbs 27:17)

We live in a culture where relationships are broad and shallow, but it’s through relationships that God wants to grow us as people. Therefore, I am committed to having intentional relationships where I’m both sharpening others and being sharpened. I hope you choose this commitment, too. I promise you that it’s worth it!

Why I Do What I Do

It’s been a hard week. You know those weeks. The kind when one minute, you’re at your job, loving it, and think, “This is why I do what I do!” Then the next minute, something happens that causes you to not only retract your last sentiment, but then think, “Is there any way I can get out of this?”

My life in the ministry so far has looked a lot like this. There are things that I love about working at a church and committing my life to knowing Christ and making Him known. However, like many jobs, it’s one where you have to deal with people A LOT. But you’re not just dealing with people, no. See, I worked with people doing customer assistance for over five years, and although it was frustrating at times, it wasn’t a big deal. Because while working to assist customers, the customer is always right–even if they happen to be very wrong. In ministry, the job is not dealing with customers. It’s dealing with fallen human beings who are created in the image of God, and instead of selling a product, our job is to help them become more like God. What a tricky and impossible task. But this task is made all-the-more impossible by the fact that I am one of those people.

I’m a fallen human being, just like everybody else. The first inclination of my heart is not to wake up every morning and thank God for being alive. And it’s not to set a chunk of time aside every day to pray. Nor do I naturally desire to read an ancient text of literature for fifteen minutes every day, while I study specific sections for hours on end every week so that I can help others to understand it. There are times when each of these things and all that I know I should be doing seems totally unappealing and unnecessary. As much as I believe in prayer, Bible study, fasting, and tithing, that doesn’t mean that I always feel like doing them. And it doesn’t mean that I always do them even when I don’t feel like it, even though I know I should. In fact, it’s been a few weeks since I wrote in my prayer journal, I’m about three months behind in my one year Bible, I can’t remember the last time I fasted for a whole day, and I’ve got a little bit of a backorder on tithe. (I better stop and fix my tithe situation right now before I continue writing. . . . Okay, now we’re good. Thank the Lord for online giving!)

I think all of this is probably the hardest part of pastoring: knowing that I’m supposed to be leading other people in spiritual transformation when I still have so much farther to go myself. I’m a perfectionist, which means I believe in excellence, so I don’t like failing. And what is failing? In Starla terms, failing often means missing excellence, when I can think of so many ways that I could have done something better. The worse failures I make are when I missed my set goal and someone ends up getting hurt in the process. As a leader, I hate hurting and letting down the people whom I’m serving. And in these kinds of failures, that’s when I have to ask, “Why do I do what I do?”

I’ve asked this kind of question a lot this week. Then tonight, I had to ask God to help me let go of the things I obsess over that I want to improve. Shortly after this prayer, out of nowhere I received a text from a friend, who knows nothing of my situation, saying that she was praying for me and to keep faith.

A little over a year ago, I started keeping a digital photo album on my computer with all of the comments, emails, pictures, tweets, etc. that have encouraged me personally. I currently have 99 notes in that album, along with a plethora of saved text messages that remind exactly why I do what I do. I do what I do because God called me to do it. Because success in God’s eyes is measured in nothing but faithfulness. When it comes down to it, I often get my job confused with God’s. It’s His job to equip, empower, and send me out. My job is much more simple. My job is to let God do His.

Why do I do what I do? Because God’s doing what He does. And I’m letting Him.

Make It Snappy!

I’m almost always running late. When I was a kid, the most common phrase my mom said to me was probably, “Starla, make it snappy!”, meaning, “Starla, hurry up!”.  (In all fairness, she probably actually said “I love you” more often, but this was a close second.) For some reason, I just do things slowly. I get distracted easily, which makes me always feel behind. Like I’m constantly trying to catch up. This has caused the most common nightmare plot to be something like this:

Exposition: I’m in a common place in an odd way, and I have somewhere important that I need to be with an important task to complete.

  • Example: I’m at my high school even after graduating college, and I need to get to class so that I can earn my high school diploma.

Rising Action: Things keep coming up that prevent me from getting to where I need to be.

  • Example: I need to get to math class, but I haven’t finished my homework. And my shoes are missing…

Climax: Everyone else leaves. I get more worried and the worst possibilities keep running through my head.

  • Example: I have to go to Circle K to get my flip flops–who knows why I left them there–but now the school day has started so everyone else is in class, and I’m by myself. I fear that I’m never going to be able to finish high school, because it’s been too long since I’ve been there. 

Falling Action/Resolution: I wake up.

  • Example: Actually before I woke up in this story, I ran into Symphonic Winds and remembered that I’d get to play in band again, which made high school not so bad. Then I woke up.

I don’t know what caused me to have such a big fear of being late, but it’s something I still struggle with and get the most frustrated about. It’s also when I get the most frustrated with God for not moving fast enough. I like to plan things, but for some reason God doesn’t seem to like my schedule all that much; He’s always changing things up. Maybe if God doesn’t even stick to my schedule, I shouldn’t be so worried about it either.

I hate being late. But when I think back to why I’m late so often, it’s because I don’t like rushing all of the time. I’m later than I want to be for work, because I took time to make a cup of coffee and talk with my mom. Or I decided to take longer and enjoy the warmth in the shower. Or I wanted to read my Bible before leaving for work. Or I took time to read an extra chapter of a good book.

There are certainly things that I need to work on so that I’m not late all of the time. But maybe it’s okay to be late sometimes. Maybe it’s worth it to take time for friends, coffee, reading, and other things that are meant to be enjoyed. Instead of rushing through it and being on time, I think I’d rather enjoy life and be late.

Learning to Forgive

“If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.” – Jesus (Luke 17:3)

These can be hard words to hear. But what makes them even harder is that Jesus continues, “And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying ‘I repent,’  you shall forgive him.” (Lk. 17:4). Wow! I don’t know about you, but this makes me want to respond by saying, “Really, Jesus? Are you sure? Because that person really hurt me.” Sometimes I forget that Jesus kind of knew what He was talking about. After all, He was abandoned by all of His followers (except a few women, one being His mother), betrayed by one of his closest friends, put to death by the very people He came to love, and was denied by His best friend as He was being tortured and was dying. This causes me to think that Jesus may have really understood what pain is. Sometimes we try to let Him off the hook because He is God, but this is to deny Him as the Son of Man, a whole human, with full human feelings and emotions. And if He was (and is) not fully human, then He could not do that which was necessary to save us, so we would still be left to sin and death. So to sum up everything, Jesus was human, suffered intense emotional pain from other people, and still calls us to forgiveness.

As I look at these two verses though, I have to ask, what if the person who offends me does not repent? What are we to do then? In the past year, I have suffered from two significant relationships in my life that have hurt me considerably. And neither of them really repented.  Maybe they didn’t because I did not “rebuke” them, or did not do it correctly. But now, it’s too late to try to make it right in that way. The relationships we once had, are now virtually over. One of these people I may never even see again. Yet even though the relationship is over, I am still left in brokenness and pain. So what am I to do?

After Jesus presented this message to the disciples, they responded by saying to the Lord, “Increase our faith” (17:5). Jesus’ answer astounds me. He doesn’t tell them to go pray, read the Bible, or any other churchy kind of answers; He simply tells them to be obedient. “So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.’ ” (17:10).

When we are left hurt and broken by people who were supposed to love and care for us, I think we are always called to forgive them- no matter how much or how often they hurt us, and even if they never repent. But I think that Jesus is also telling us that forgiveness may look very different from what we would originally expect. Forgiveness is not a one time thing. We do not often forgive someone in one sitting, then go on fine and splendidly. Instead, forgiveness is a process that comes as we do the work of God that He has commanded us to do. Forgiveness comes as we become that humbled servant who is not after a profit or any special treatment, but only desires to be faithful in the least of things (Lk. 16:10).

If you are that person that has been hurt by someone else, I am sorry for your pain and what has been done against you. But I encourage to you respond in faithfulness to God. I know that it’s hard and probably will be for a while, but as you are obedient to our Father and do what is commanded of you, He will carry you “as a man carries his son,” (Deut. 1:31). True healing rests only in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.