I’m updating the prayers to be used with the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL).
Please visit: http://www.prayersofthefaithful.org
I was asked to write about being a church planter’s wife for the PEARUSA newsletter and decided to write a letter to beginning church-planter’s wife me.
I see you there, with your earnest zeal and your highlighted crinkle-paged Bible and your life verse that reminds you to run hard. I know how you love Jesus and delight in his church, and I’ve watched you sing For All the Saints with gusto every November.
I’ve read that fat stack of books by your bedside, the ones that tell you how to organize your house and make the most of your time, the ones with lists for Scripture memory and Bible study and scheduled exercise and regular sex and balanced meals and the Exhaustive Guide to being an Excellent Wife™ .
I see you packing up boxes for your cross country move — your three-year old tangled up in packing tape on one side, your sixteen month old and his unsupervised Sharpie on the other, and that brand new baby strapped to your front. As your southern friends from the church you’re leaving would say: Bless your heart.
You think you’re familiar with church planting. After all, you’ve been involved in one from the ground up. You’ve experienced the worry of empty chairs, and you’ve sat through meetings where opinions flared and people hashed out mission statements. You’ve raised your hand more than once to meet a need.
You’ve played piano and taught Sunday school. You’ve set up welcome tables and served snacks. You’ve prayed and laughed and rejoiced and grown. You’ve weathered seminary and youth ministry and stood by your husband while he took his ordination vows. Together you have a handful of years of ministry and some associate pastoring under your belt. You think you know what’s coming.
Bless your Jesus-loving heart.
When your baby is six weeks old, I see you move from South Carolina to Seattle where every trip to the grocery store is full of people marveling at how full your hands are.
You have three children three-and-under, a two-bedroom apartment, and one visionary husband.
You think you can handle it, because you can do all things through Christ who strengthens you. And sleep-deprivation is hard but deny yourself and consider others as more important and you are an unprofitable servant and take thoughts captive, because all the books you’ve read have told you how to be Good.
So the night before every church plant meeting you hunt the internet for children’s craft ideas. After all, three of the five kids are yours, and no one else is offering, and you might as well, because the last sermon you ever fully listened to was the one before your first due date.
And you stock your purse with snacks and books that keep little ones quiet until the singing. They do their best, but you still worry that they are too loud, and then you worry about all the possible negative effects of being a PK, and as much as you loved reading the works of Martin Luther and Jonathan Edwards you’d give it all up for one seminary class on how to solo-parent young children from set up to tear down of the Anglican service.
Because that’s what church has become: service. Serving and teaching and praying and filling in at the piano if they really need it and minding children and making sure you say hello to the new people and checking in with that woman having a hard time and putting on the coffee and wiping the craft glue off the tables and smiling and smiling and smiling. Oh, Honey. Bless your wrung out, well-intentioned, zealous, driven little heart.
You don’t even know how lonely you are. Years of ministry have given you a strange sort of relationship-mode that is the enemy of true intimacy. Keep working at this. People aren’t ministry projects; friendship is worth it, and you need others who can see you for who you are not what you do. And though it’s hard to find, believe me, you’re going to need some solid friends around you for what comes next.
Because, Girl, you have more issues than Vogue. Those things you think you’ve dealt with from your past? Yeah, you haven’t.
And this perfect storm of children and transitions and job moves and family dynamics and illness and financial stress is about to explode all over the place. You want to please your husband and please your kids and please your parents and please the church and, above all, please God, and all that pleasing has you working so hard to save your Good Christian life that you’re blind to the danger of losing your soul.
I see you default into self-denial when the stressors come, as if legalism and doing the Right Thing and ordering your time wisely and choking out the bad will somehow fill your life with good.
It’s not working out so well for you.
That taking up your cross you think you’re doing? It’s really a form of self-loathing. And all that service? Somewhere along the way you’ve picked up the lie that love means meeting the needs of other people and oh, Honey, you’re in trouble because the world is aching with need, and the church is full of broken people, and there will always be more you could do, and your shoulders were never meant to bear that weight.
Your cracked and dry heart is desperate for someone to see and know and approve, and all the serving and loving and smiling won’t ever fill it. But it will take a few years for you to get there yet. You’ll tread water awhile, because that message you’ve carried around from middle-school youth group has taught you well — Jesus first, Others second, Yourself last — and you don’t yet know any other way to live.
And then you’ve read all those marriage books. The ones that tell you to support his dream and be a strong helper, and of course you’re going to, since you love your husband, and you love the church. And so you lean in even more, because aren’t the two meant to become one? And a wise pastor’s wife once told you that it shouldn’t be a church hiring two for the price of one, but the messages to serve more and do more ring a little bit louder.
So you think of it is as “our” job and “our” calling, and neither of you really know any better, because in a church plant there’s too much to do and too few volunteers, and the scarcity mindset takes over. You get tricked up by your own competency, and you believe the faulty math that says if you can do it and no one else is doing it then you should do it.
Eventually you’ll let go. You know and believe that it’s God who grows his church, and in time this trickles down to melt your perfectionism and drivenness. You’ll see that your volunteering might actually be excluding the person who finds great joy in that ministry, and you’ll discover that it’s acceptable for the nonessentials to fall by the wayside.
The children won’t mind Hot Wheels coloring books for a Sunday, and that one couple will happily set up tables, and what do you know? After a few mornings with no snacks, somebody else begins to bring them. And the Martha in you will come to accept that when there’s no coffee on Sunday, the work of the kingdom will still go on. Even in Seattle.
And slowly, slowly, you’ll begin to stop. Mostly because you cannot continue at that pace. Your mind and your body and your marriage will all stretch thin until the crippling anxiety irrationally shouts at you that you are in danger.
Because you are.
All your books on Having a Good Christian Marriage won’t prepare you for the moment when both of your coping mechanisms fall short, and you discover his human-ness and can’t escape your own, and the unhealth of the Try-Harder Christian Life slaps you straight in the face until you realize that bending in to another person is never the way to wholeness. It will take you some time to see that becoming one doesn’t equal two people eliminating themselves but requires two wholes bringing all their separateness and individuality to the marriage. So, Girl, get yourself to a family therapist, because that perfect storm? It’s done a number on your marriage.
And eventually that day will come when you and he stop bending in to each other and instead slowly straighten up, letting the crooked spine unfurl and the disjointed things pop back into health until you are standing side by side, hands clasped, looking straight up to Jesus.
That posture brings in the conversations where you can sit and listen and really see your husband without jumping in to fix or problem-solve or analyze a situation. You will find yourself happily ignorant of the politics of the latest vestry meeting, and you will stay home from church when the children are over-tired, and when you do go, you might just sit somewhere quiet rather than jump in with an automatic, “How can I help?” When you recognize that church planting is his job and not yours, you will respect and cheer him on in a new way, and you will find the freedom that comes from setting aside all the need and drivenness and instead consider where you the individual – not the pastor’s wife or the mother – fit into the life of the church.
And old wounds will begin to heal – the sting of those early days of seminary when people started asking your husband what he was studying and looked right past you. The hurt that cut deep on that first mission trip where you only wore the label spouse and the aching identity crisis that threw you for a loop when you became defined by motherhood. The wounds of a lifetime that say any self at all is selfish.
When our strange culture breathes the question, “What do you do?” it leaves you defined as a pastor’s wife and a church planter’s wife and a stay-at-home mom, and while all of that is true, what you do does not name who you are. And, oh, I know it hurts, but all of this is part of the process to strip off the old and the false in you, because the seed has to die before it can bear fruit. Just wait. Hold on, because freedom and new life tastes good, and you won’t ever want to go back to the old way of doing things.
But before you get there I see you on the dark days. The ones where you feel trapped and hurt and lonely and afraid. The times when it feels like all either of you are doing is working, and the money is never enough, and his shoulders slump when the critical comments come from the parishioner you thought was on your side, and you want to camp out with Elijah and despairingly say: I have been very zealous for you, Lord.
I see you fantasize about a “normal” job where he can clock out at five, and you try and remember what it felt like to have his arm draped over your shoulders during the sermon and how it was to hoard Christmas week all to yourself. The plain truth is that some of the ins and outs of church planting are just difficult, and you will never recoup the cost.
But it’s time to let go the cultural lie that says being a pastor or church planter (or his wife) is somehow The Hardest.
Because it’s not.
Just like Elijah was not the only one in Israel, you and your family are not the only ones whose jobs squeeze tight or who struggle with the circumstances that beat them down. You need to hear that it’s not just you who’s stretched thin by life, it’s everyone else in the church, every single person who comes on Sundays, and it’s why all of you line up together in that long row for communion, because you all are desperate for the life-giving Bread of the world.
You’re hungry for Someone to see you and know you and approve of you, and oh how happy I am for the day when you sing Jesus Loves Me with the kids for the thousandth time and begin to believe those words for yourself. It’s like the way you’re crazy about your children, but not because they play so excellently or do childhood so well – you love them because you can’t help but do anything else: they’re your kids. He sees you and knows you and loves you, but not for what you do. He loves you because you’re his, so drop that basket and open your arms wide for God to fill them with his goodness.
But all of that’s still ahead of you, and right now you’re in the thick of it. I’m not going to advise you to pray harder or read your Bible more or memorize longer Scripture passages. I’m not going to tell you to look to Jesus or choose your feelings or serve others. In fact, I’m not going to give you any advice at all, because your hard-working, sleep-deprived, driven little heart is going to latch on to the doing, and I know how easy it is for good Christian women to even Martha-ize sitting at his feet.
Because what’s hardest for you to believe is that when Jesus says his yoke is easy and his burden is light, he really means it.
Doing more, self-denying more, giving more or serving more won’t bring you more life, it just sends you endlessly going, rising up early and going to bed late, laboring in vain. And he hasn’t promised you a treadmill – he’s promised you life.
Grace is kind of an all-or-nothing game. Go all in on grace. Rest. Be still. Breathe. Let go. Find joy.
And bless your exhausted little heart, you need some.
Marissa lives in Seattle. When you ask her what she does, she will answer that
But she’s trying to stop defining herself by what she does, so here are some things she finds delightful: British mysteries, cats curled up on blankets, the smoky smell of autumn, cold rainy walks along the Pacific Ocean, and roasted sweet potatoes.
You can find Marissa online at marissaburt.com.
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” the priest said, and I looked at my round-cheeked, bobble-headed, newly-born gift, and I was terrified. He will die one day, I thought, and the simple truth of the human condition quickened inside me. I spent this last January in the hospital with that child, now a growing seven-year-old. He was gravely ill, and, for a time, the doctors didn’t know how to diagnose him.
If you’ve ever lingered in a children’s hospital, you know it is a hallowed place. It tears you up to see young bodies worn thin with illness and bloated with medication, to watch toddlers toting IV poles, and to find children who should be running and jumping and laughing bedridden.
There’s an instant respect and gratitude for the nurses and doctors and workers who battle death every day and long through the night.
There’s a strange kinship that comes with intuitively recognizing the fear and powerlessness on fellow parents’ faces stretched tight with worry.
We named our eldest son Dominic, because it means belonging to the Lord. I’ve always believed it, but facing the reality that our son didn’t in fact belong to us, that we couldn’t heal him or sustain him or hold on to him — it was a hard place.
It’s also a place where dysfunctional coping mechanisms come in handy. The ability to emotionally disconnect, to push past the pain and fear and instead smile at my weak and feverish child was a strange gift that made the days endurable. The breath-stealing moments came at night, when the room was quiet and my boy slept, and I curled in to the hard plastic couch and cried a soundless prayer, the kind where no words come and your body prays for you, the kind I last prayed when we miscarried a baby, the kind that comes from the gut.
One afternoon I was able to slip down to the prayer chapel, where the thick doors shut out the muffled sound of the hospital. It was late December, so the nativity still sat at the front of a room framed by four stained glass images. Next to that was a kneeler facing Mecca. Opposite, a spreading tree curved over the wall. And behind that, a glass cabinet, filled with every religious symbol you can imagine. This was a place where no one could escape the truth of mortality, where a parent’s deepest fears confronted them face-to-face — a place where everyone reaches for God.
I had the chapel to myself, which was good, because emotion is loud and desperation bottles up inside, and all I could think was: NOT MY CHILD.
The past four years have wrung us dry as a family. Circumstances have squeezed tight from every possible angle, and brokenness and sin have nearly choked the life out of us, and as 2014 dawned I couldn’t face this new gauntlet.
“Please, God,” I begged. “Not that. Not my son.” I refused to bookend this with a rote request for God’s will to be done.
I was afraid of God’s will.
I know well the stories of Job and his inexplicable loss and Abraham climbing the mountain with his boy and the woman who dared to believe Elisha’s promise of a son only to lose him. I wanted life and health for my child. If something else came, well…the thought of it was, and is, intolerable.
I confessed this to a friend who gently reminded me that no, thank you must be a permissible prayer, because there was Another who prayed the cup of suffering be taken from him. And I held tight to that when the diagnosis finally came, when it turned out my son’s rare disease was treatable but had long term consequences, when we learned that he had cardiac damage that may or may not resolve, when the doctor quietly instructed us how to spot the signs of a heart attack in children, when we learned that at seven years old, he has heart disease. I am deeply thankful for that outcome. I know it could have been much worse, and that for many children it is.
Writing medical updates for friends and family reminds me of this. I can’t make myself form the expected vocabulary. “Praise God,” seems like what I ought to say to preface every good report.
But it rings false in my mouth, because it feels myopic and premature. I’m grateful, yes, but I’d have much rather passed on the whole experience. And what of the other children? The ones who have only bad news to report?
Easter is far off and while the hope of God’s victory frames all of life, we live in the shadowlands where children’s hospitals are still packed full. I can’t stop thinking about the families who don’t get the “Praise God” report. Many days I find myself back in the hospital chapel, panicked in the face of suffering children, and shouting: NO, THANK YOU. Because disease and death? I hate them.
In the front of the chapel, there was a large book filled with written prayers. Pleading prayers, and resigned prayers, and prayers for strength, and messages of love to dead children. Because children die. Parents sit in that room and plead and cry and God doesn’t take the cup from their boy’s lips.
They are left bereft and empty-armed, and I can hardly breathe when I think of that played out. I can make no sense of the “why?” questions, and while my head does fine with accepting the sound theological parsing of suffering, my heart can’t swallow it. On this side of mortality, there is no answer to the reality of that kind of suffering.
There is only Jesus.
A wounded Savior, I’m desperate for him. It’s moments like those where I need the crucifix. I need to see God himself coming to enter into suffering and death. I need to see him draw near to us in the face of our doubt and grief and show us the wounds in his hands and his side.
When I hear stories of loss, a friend whose newborn baby died after four months of battling in the hospital, the woman whose five-year-old was suddenly given a few months to live, the dying mother who stores up letters for her four children to read after she’s gone, the missionary who came home on furlough to find a terminal cancer diagnosis, the Code Blues ringing through the hospital halls —it is too much for me. Death, our great enemy, steals in, and how can we endure it?
I don’t know. There are no theological answers that make the pain bearable. Death is part of our world — a strange, beautiful, holy, and terrible thing about being human.
Lent gives me space to receive this, it brings me into the wilderness with Christ, who took on a body destined for dust. The ashes on all of our foreheads become a quiet chorus that whispers: death comes to us all. Though we must accept death, there is no way to normalize it. I think of this as I wonder how one copes with the suffering and untimely death of a child. Or of anyone, really, because is death ever timely when we were made for life?
I’m having trouble ending this post, wrapping it up with some sort of tidy conclusion, but I think that’s perhaps appropriate. There is no conclusion for the Lenten moments – no tidy answer for my empty-armed friends, for the mothers still pacing floors, for the hollowed-eyed fathers in the hospital coffee line, for all of us who cry wordless prayers of pain.
Together, we wait with the suffering, gasping, beautiful world, believing hard that Easter is coming.
I’ve watched a couple of WWII documentaries lately. This is odd, because until now I have had zero interest in military history. Maybe it’s my newfound appreciation of the Christian life as battle or maybe it’s finally appreciating recent history, or maybe it’s the fact that my grandfather fought in the Pacific Theater. I’m not sure, but I’m fascinated.
I recently listened to a D-day veteran describe how he got through each day. “You just assumed you were going to die that day,” he said. “Then, when you got to the evening, you thanked God you were still alive. You went to sleep and awoke the next day, expecting to die.”
I feel like I should stop this post right there. Nothing I write will add to the profundity of that statement. Go ahead, read it again.
I know someone else who talked about dying. About considering one’s life as rubbish. Of being dead already. The Christian life is dying, a preparation for death, in every possible meaning of the phrase. And a preparation for resurrection, which can only come after we die.
Robert Farrar Capon is one of my favorite modern theologians. He talks about this often, how the only thing God requires of us is the one thing we cannot avoid doing: dying. Lewis says something similar:
“A rejection, or in Scripture’s strong language, a crucifixion of the natural self is the passport to everlasting life. Nothing that has not died will be resurrected.”
I think of what it meant to Jesus’ listeners, His astounding command to take up one’s cross and follow Him. Of how there is no way to hide from the reality of impending death when you’re lugging a cross behind you. The constant reminder is there: You are about to die.
I like to pretend this is not the case. I believe the ads that tell me perpetual youth is, in fact, within my reach. I am appalled when I hear of someone “dying too soon,” as though it’s somehow easier to face it at eighty. I sometimes live as though there are endless tomorrows, that I can fritter away the priceless moments, because there’s a glut of years ahead of me. Living as though I am guaranteed tomorrow is the worst kind of frivolity.
It’s part of the reason I so desperately hunt for security, why I want to minimize risk, and search for peace to replace fear. I want to save my life. I think of the soldier’s words, and I know I would have run away. I would have fled the battle, shipped back home, and shut my eyes tight to the carnage of war. I feel the same compulsions right now. I want to avoid the struggle, hide away in my own fantasies of what life should be like, and shut my eyes tight to the carnage of war around me.
The thing is, doing that doesn’t save my life. It robs me of it.
All we have is today. This moment. Right now. The neighbor God has given you. The friend. The child. The coworker. The stranger I stand in line with in the coffee shop. What would it mean for me look up and out from my own fears and really see them? What does it look like to resist the frantic, bent anxiety-reducing impulses and follow Jesus who teaches me that abundant life is a byproduct of loving God and loving others? What if I put aside my fears, held loosely to my plans, looked outside of myself to the person in front of me, the eternal being who holds the seed of God’s image? What if I stopped worrying about self-preservation?
I think it looks like this: You just assume you are going to die today. Then, when you get to the evening, you thank God you are still alive. You go to sleep and wake the next day, expecting to die.
G.K. Chesterton once said that “Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead…Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.”
To honor that sentiment and to stave off an easy chronological snobbery, today’s post comes straight from the mouths (or pens) of men and women who have died in the faith.
[Mark] left the Bristol feeling, as he would have said, a different man. Indeed he was a different man. From now onwards till the moment of final decision should meet him, the different men in him appeared with startling rapidity and each seemed very complete while it lasted. Thus, skidding violently from one side to the other, his youth approached the moment at which he would begin to be a person…
There were no moral considerations at this moment in Marks’ mind. He looked back on his life not with shame, but with a kind of disgust at its dreariness. He saw himself as a little boy in short trousers, hidden in the shrubbery beside the paling, to overhear Myrtle’s conversation with Pamela, and trying to ignore the fact that it was not at all interesting when overheard. He saw himself making believe that he enjoyed those Sunday afternoons with the athletic heroes of Grip while all the time (as he now saw) he was almost homesick for one of the old walks with Pearson – Pearson whom he had taken such pains to leave behind. He saw himself in his teens laboriously reading rubbishy grown-up novels and drinking beer when he really enjoyed John Buchan and stone ginger. The hours that he had spent learning the very slang of each new circle that attracted him, the perpetual assumption of interest in things he found dull and of knowledge he did not possess, the almost heroic sacrifice of nearly every person and thing he actually enjoyed, the miserable attempt to pretend that one could enjoy Grip, or the Progressive Element, or the N.I.C.E. – all this came over him with a kind of heart-break. When had he ever done what he wanted? mixed with the people whom he liked? Or even eaten and drunk what took his fancy? The concentrated insipidity of it all filled him with self-pity.
In his normal condition, explanations that laid on impersonal forces outside himself the responsibility for all this life of dust and broken bottles would have occurred at once to his mind and been at once accepted. It would have been “the system” or “an inferiority complex” due to his parents, or the peculiarities of the age. None of these things occurred to him now. His “scientific” outlook had never been a real philosophy believed with blood and heart. It had lived only in his brain, and was a part of that public self which was now falling off him. He was aware, without even having to think of it, that it was he himself – nothing else in the whole universe – that had chosen the dust and broken bottles, the heap of old tin cans, the dry and choking places.