September 2009


empty chairThere are going to be those weeks when only a few small group members show up for the small group meeting. Maybe the H1N1 hits a household, a child’s ballgame happens to be rescheduled forcing group members to miss the meeting, a business traveler is out of town, or maybe some fanatical football fan calls in sick, the Bengals just might beat the Steelers. Group members start calling you an hour or so before the meeting. You anticipated 10 of your closest friends hanging out in your living room, but only four or so show up.

You may not realize it, but how a small group leader handles this situation can greatly enhance or detract from the leader’s level of influence. A few do’s and don’ts…

  • Don’t cancel the meeting.
  • Don’t apologize for the number of people who are in attendance.
  • Don’t speak negatively of those who aren’t there.
  • Don’t make statements that negatively impact the conversation like, “I sure wish John was here. He would really have some important input right now.” or “If Sue was here she could speak to this issue.” Etc…
  • Don’t allow the enemy to lead you to believe group members didn’t show up due to your leadership or because they don’t appreciate the group.
  • Don’t feel a obligation to fill the entire meeting time. If you finish early due to the fact that fewer people are involved in the conversation, that’s okay. Spend the rest of the time just enjoying one another’s company. This will pay off in the long run.
  • Do start on time (don’t wait to see if more people are going to show up).
  • Do go ahead with every aspect of the small group meeting.
  • Do give your whole heart to those who are in attendance. In fact, realize that the smaller number of attendees gives you the opportunity to connect with these group members at a much more intimate level.
  • Do pray for the needs of those who aren’t at the meeting. Be careful that you don’t pray that they’ll show up next week.

Consider a smaller than normal group meeting an opportunity to build deeper relationships and prove every individual is important to you.

storm-team2At one point in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury the main character, Quentin Compson, expresses a desire to go behind the “clean flame.” As his native South evidenced greater and greater decay and his once strong, proud family sunk into profound dysfunction, he longed for katharsis—essentially to be born again. The idea of katharsis—a moment of purification—is significant within the Christian pilgrimage, as we all know. In a recent conversation the question was asked, “So how much healing does a person need?” The only possible answer is, “More.” More healing. More God. More community. More authenticity. More worship. These are the “clean flames” along the journey we have been called into. This quiet trip of the mind’s eye conjured these words from Martin Luther.

This life, therefore, is not righteousness
But growth in righteousness;
Not healthy, but healing;
Not being, but becoming;
Not rest; but exercise.

We are not yet what we shall be,
But we are growing toward it;
The process is not  yet finished
But it is going on;
This is not the end,
But it is the road to glory.
All does not yet gleam with glory
But all is being purified.

I keep a copy of this in my journal as a reminder that all is being purified. We’re able to see it in the people around us every day. In our small groups and churches. In our relationships. In a sense we’re passing through the clean flame as the minutes and hours and weeks of our lives, also described as “God’s Curriculum of Life,” are put to work for us in the process of becoming whole.

Two weeks ago, we went to see Wicked at TPAC in Nashville.

I almost have no words for what I felt. Is that too melodramatic?

Working with Serendipity, one of our sort of catch phrases is to take notice of the things that make you come alive. That is where you need to be meeting God in His work.

The only way I can describe how this musical affected me is to say that: it made my heart come alive.

Maybe it is just the hope deferred, finally come true. I have wanted to see the musical for a really, really long time. I first read the book in high school. As soon as I knew there was a musical based on it, I was longing to see it. I am a tiny bit obsessed with musicals, you see.

Maybe it’s the little bit of my heart that still thinks I could be in musicals, if I lost some weight and had a little more talent for acting. I have rarely felt as exhilarated as I did after performing in our Broadway Revue show at church.

Or maybe it’s just the amazing story, come to life. The absolutely phenomenal voice of Marcie Dodd, who played Elphaba and was just, well, enchanting. The unexpected (for me) perkiness of Glinda, which must have required the actress to have endless wells of energy.

It was beautiful. I absolutely did not want it to end. And I’ve come away wondering, what does this mean? Why does it stir my heart so? Is something there unfulfilled, something I should be pursuing?

Have you seen Wicked? I’d love to know your thoughts.

When I saw Gran Torino earlier this year there was a powerful scene that moved me deeply, although I wasn’t exactly sure why.  If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll remember the scene.  It’s when Clint Eastwood’s character, Walt Kowalski, takes the young boy, Thao, to the barber shop to show him…model for him how men interact.  Walt strolls in and speaks to the barber in very rough language and is greeted in return with the same gruff banter — all done with a surprising warmth between the two men.  He tells Thao to go out and do the same thing.  When he does, the barber acts  incensed and deeply offended and grabs a shotgun in feigned outrage.  So what was the difference?  Thao spoke in the same off-color language as Walt, but the response was the complete opposite.

I have found this same situation in my own life.  At times associates, friends, or family members’ “friendly” barbs and “funny” insults have been very hurtful and offensive to me.  However, there are those people in my life who are closer than a brother that could say the very same thing, and I would return the banter feeling a sense of camaraderie — not of outrage.  Why is my response so different for them.  Why do I feel so different?

In processing this, I’ve come to believe the difference lies in knowing the heart of people through the battles of life.  My closest brothers have walked beside me when the battles were raging the hardest.  They were there when I was wounded and helped carry me when I was completely disoriented and couldn’t make sense of anything.  I knew they had my back, which allowed me to pursue healing rather than spend all my energies defending myself and striving for justice, or medicating and anesthetizing the pain.  They reminded me of my true identity as a restored son of the Sovereign Lord.  These few had seen me at my worst but also saw what was deeper.  To me, these individuals have “earned” the right to speak to me anyway they want because I know their heart for me.  I know they love me deeply and that provides freedom from misinterpretation.  I know their jokes are simply jokes because they have showed up for me over and over again.  For those whose hearts remain hidden from me, who haven’t been in the valley with me, who don’t know my heart and my greatest wounds, I can get riled up when they hurl insults in  a “humorous” way.  I don’t know what’s behind that…and it makes all the difference.

Now I’m not suggesting that we begin speaking to our closest friends in course and off-color language, as done in the movie, but how can we nurture this depth of relationship in our small groups?  How can we begin to know others’ hearts more intimately?  I believe it begins with authenticity in our groups.  By leaving your false-self behind and bringing your true-self and offering it to the group.  Of course this is risky and we have all felt the sting of offering a piece of our hearts only to have it rejected, minimized, or in other ways mishandled.  But this is also the only way to really begin to come alive.

In Rick Howerton’s book on small-group community, he states there are seven principles groups must practice if they want to live authentically:

  1. There are mysteries found in the Bible – God is static but our understanding of Him should be dynamic as He continues to reveal Himself to us.
  2. The fact that life is messy – In sharing our messes, we become free to be ourselves and free to support one another as we continue the journey to be more like Jesus.
  3. Personal imperfections – We will judge ourselves, as well as those around us, until we accept our personal imperfections.
  4. That God is always present even when He feels distant – God sometimes uses what we perceive as distance to force us to reach out to other believers.
  5. Respecting others without having to agree with all they do or say – God created us as individuals, and no two of us are exactly alike physically, philosophically, or spiritually. Differences shouldn’t divide a group. Instead, they should bring it together as group members benefit from one another’s diverse perspectives and experiences.
  6. Confessing our failures at the right time with the right people – In most instances when our moral failures are confessed to others in the right setting at the right time (with those who have covenanted to keep confidences and care deeply about the confessor), the person confessing experiences healing.
  7. Satan is at work in the world – Christ-followers should be aware that Satan is more than a fictional character is an enemy on the attack, looking to destroy friendships, family members, and belief systems. Most importantly, he looks to kill hearts.

What kind of transformation would we experience if we knew those members of our small group so deeply that we never had to try to interpret what they really meant? What if we knew their heart for us and they knew our heart for them. Put these principles to action in your group and see how you experience change together.

There are a plethora of small group Bible studies available. Just check out your local Christian bookstore. There will most likely be shelves and shelves of them (If you hit a LifeWay Christian store you’ll find one entire section of just Serendipity by LifeWay Bible studies.).

 

But do groups really need published Bible studies written and edited by professionals? A few questions might help us answer that question…

 About Biblical Truth:

  • Is there someone in your small group with enough biblical/theological knowledge to be certain biblical misinterpretation doesn’t occur?
  • If there is someone like the person mentioned above in your group, will that individual speak up?
  • If that individual speaks up, does that individual have enough clout with the group for the entire group to believe what they say?
  • And if they speak up can you be sure they know what they’re talking about in this particular instance?

 About the Heart Journey (which is brought about by guided discussion made up of a carefully designed series of questions):

  • Does the person creating the questions know how to craft each question in such a way it gets to the heart, not just the head?
  • Does the person creating the questions know how to order the questions in such a way the questions flow from the shallowness of surface conversation to the depths of the soul.
  • Does the person creating the questions know how to group questions in such a way they accomplish both points mentioned above and the conversation feel natural and authentic?

 Great Bible studies are written/edited by people gifted by God to create Bible studies that transform and those same curriculum writers, if working for a biblically driven publishing company, are expected to drive the group meeting to truth that leads to transformation.

I’ve come across some wonderful posts on faith and putting into action in our lives lately. If you have a minute, why don’t you check out one or two?

Love Where You Are by The Nester at (in)courage–extremely poignant to me given my housing situation. If you’re just scraping by or trying to make the best of your living space, this is a great reminder. And Nesting Place is a beautiful blog full of inspiration for decorating a home simply, classicly, and inexpensively!

These Kids Are Driving Me Crazy by Laura, the Heavenly Homemaker–Laura always puts the perfect slant on bad situations. The author realizes perhaps there is something deeper to her newfound impatience with her four young sons.

Needing Some Closure by Sophie (BooMama)–hilarious competition on the Most Holy Way to Close Communication with a Friend.

This is Where the Similarities Between Me and God End by The Diaper Diaries–what if we saw God looking at us as how we look at our children?

I’m tempted to try to go find something off some very intellectual, heady, small-group leader’s blog but I confess … that’s not what I read. Most of my favorite blogs are from everyday women like myself. Read Rick‘s posts if you want something deeper. 🙂

Have you read anything good lately around the blogosphere? I’d love to read it, even if it has big words.

When I go to a restaurant and I have to park in a public parking garage, many times the attendant will hand me a ticket as I’m driving into the garage and tell me that the waitress will “validate” the ticket. That is, they will stamp the ticket, confirming I’m telling the truth, that I parked my car in the garage. Once the ticket is “validated” I can rest knowing the parking lot attendant will believe my story.

Validation is important in parking garages but is essential in small group life. Many times group members will reveal a part of their story never before verbalized. At that point the group member is anticipating the group will acknowledge her/his life situation, the pain  the experience is causing them, that the enemy is using these past experiences to hold she/he captive, and that the group believes the revelation to be true.

But without acknowledging/validating the story the individual may never move forward and someday be free of that baggage. All of us must remember that validating the story is the first step, the step that must take place before asking the group member to go to work on the pain and baggage.

A few phrases to consider when validating:

  • “Thanks for telling us about this. We believe in you and want to journey with you.”
  • “I didn’t know that about you. We are honored that you told us even more about your past experiences.”
  • “I believe you and I am here to help you any way I can.”
  • “Thanks for courageously telling us the truth.”

What are some other phrases we might use to validate another small group member?

 

“86 years have I served Him, he has done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”   -Polycarp at martyrdom

As I’ve been studying through the seven churches of Revelation, I’ve been drawn once again into study of the early Church. Since most of my missionary time was spent trying to “unlearn” much of church form and tradition in order to strip myself of cultural baggage, I guess I had gone on kind of a multi-year fast from one of my favorite educational passions: Church History.

One of the great inspirations of the early Church was Polycarp, pastor of the Church of Smyrna. When you read Jesus’ letter to this church in Revelation and then cross-reference Polycarp’s story, what results is a beautiful portrait of courage in the face of adversity. Here’s a link to part of Polycarp’s bio: http://www.polycarp.net/

Here are just a few of the questions I’m pondering:

– As we strive for relevance, are we as a church still modeling this kind of courage in the face of adversity?

– As a church leader, is this the kind of courage I model for those in my circle of influence?

– If Jesus were to write a letter to my church or small group, what would He say?

It’s interesting to me that the Greek word for Paul’s drawn out teaching in Ephesus (Acts 20:7) is where we get our word for “dialogue,” not monologue. It seems that dialogues were and still are very effective for gaining understanding of God’s intentions and for spiritual formation.

For those of us with the gift of teaching or leadership being involved in a conversational Bible study is a tough thing because we are monologuers not dialoguers. A few suggestions for all of us:

  • Give your energy to listening as much as you do thinking about what you’d like to say when the listening is done.
  • Before speaking ask yourself this question, “Will my comment end the discussion?” For those who are not as well versed in the Bible as you, their being involved in the conversation is vital to his/her spiritual growth. If you voice the bottom line the conversation may end long before others get to process, speak, and experience growth.
  • Be careful to keep your comments short. You may have a monologue to share but the rest of the group came to experience a dialogue.
  • Don’t remain completely silent or the group will miss some very important input from you, simply remember that you are one player in the orchestra, not a one man band or the conductor of the band.

Statistics show that (from the Academic Skills Center, “Active Study,” Dartnouth College):

  1. People remember about 20 % of what they hear.
  2. People remember about 50 % of what they see.
  3. People remember about 70% of what they say themselves.

Most of the information stated here is from The Rabbit and the Elephant by Tony Dale, Felicity Dale, and George Barna.

sometimes, you have to wait

sometimes, you have to wait

I used to think I had a boring testimony. I grew up with wonderful, Christian parents. I walked the aisle when I was about 10 after having a strong call to missions. Unlike many of the people I knew from youth group, I never really wavered from my faith. I had doubts, sure, who doesn’t? But there’s never been a time I did not believe there was a God who cared about me. I didn’t rebel. I have often asked my parents what they DID to me to make me not want to be bad? They don’t know. I wish they did!

While Mr. V and I have never had tons of money, we’ve always had enough. We never went through a period where we had to eat ramen noodles. We’ve never argued significantly. While we went through a short period of infertility, it was not too awful. We’ve had a very happy five years and have a beautiful, healthy daughter.

At Thanksgiving, when Mr. V still had no job interviews lined up for January, I remember thinking, “Well, we’ve not had any hard times in our marriage so far. Maybe this is it.”

And it is.

Not that our marriage is not wonderful, but situationally it has just been a difficult nine months.

Mr. V applied for many college teaching positions–many much closer to our parents–and got not one interview. We felt so desperate. He then applied to many private high schools in Nashville. He had one interview. They hired someone else the next day.

But God had something better planned for us. Through the Southern Teachers Agency, a very prestigious school pursued him and hired him almost immediately (one MUCH better than the one he interviewed at here).

We had always assumed we would be moving after five years. And then we thought, hey, maybe we won’t have to! And then, ooh, yep, we do. So our house didn’t go on the market until the second week of June and Mr. V needed to be in Chattanooga middle of August.

Needless to say, it hasn’t sold. We’ve had a small handful of showings and nothing to show for it except a pretty clean house containing a lonely mother and her ten-month-old baby.

I want so, so badly for our house to sell so I can quit my job, go be a stay-at-home mom and freelancer, and be with Mr. V in Chattanooga. I let that get to me. A LOT! It’s a daily struggle to not whine continuously and wonder why on earth God would be “doing this to me.”

I can’t tell you how many Sunday School lessons and sermons I’ve heard on patience in the last few months. (This morning, visiting a church in Chattanooga, included.) And Mr. V and I believe it when God promises He will work all things for good. That He has a plan for us. That to Him, one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day.

We’re convinced that God will move me and Libbie to Chattanooga at the exact right time for His plan. Maybe there is a reason I need to be here. Maybe there is a reason I need to move there at some particular time. Either way, we are 100% sure God will allow it to happen in His time if we listen to His Word and obey. Bemoaning all the time I have to be apart from Mr. V does no good. I need to relish God’s plan and delight myself in Him.

Perhaps it’s all a big lesson in patience, faith, and God’s timing. Something I need to learn. And if this is the way for God to knock it into my thick head, I’m OK with that. Because I believe He loves me. Just like sometimes I need to tell Libbie “no” for her own good, sometimes He needs to say, “Not now, dear one. Wait.”

Originally published at Vanderbilt Wife