Ministry for Introverts

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There’s no question that I’m an introvert. Take me to a party, and within two hours I’ll either be doing dishes or making friends with the household cat. I love people, but I can only take so much socialization before I begin to feel exhausted and claustrophobic.

To be honest, I like functioning this way. I like that I’m sensitive and that I know when to step away from the noise of life to process and recharge. I contribute differently than an extrovert, but have just as much to offer.

Or so I like to think. In my field of work, introversion can seem like a disability. Ministry is often a parade of meeting new people, making small talk, and learning to welcome interruptions to your alone time. These are the necessary beginnings of the deeper work of pastoral care, but that doesn’t make me dread them any less. On good days, I strike a balance between the social and contemplative aspects of the job. On bad days, I look for excuses to hide.

I’m often envious of my extroverted colleagues. They’re always buzzing around town, joking with locals and picking up new French phrases. They easily connect with strangers and don’t seem uncomfortable building new relationships. Meanwhile, I can barely convince myself to go buy bread, because there might be talking involved.

When I think of what ministry should be like, I don’t think of my strengths. I believe in serving the community and reaching out to new groups. I believe in praying over people, sharing testimony, and being hospitable to strangers. But if I’m honest with myself, all those things are scary, uncomfortable, and tiring for me.

Some days, I wonder why God sent me here. Surely some extrovert would do a better job. After all, she wouldn’t get tired as fast as me, and she’d spend more of her time engaged with the community. She’d talk more, serve more, and be more cheerful. She’d be closer to the American ideal of ministry than I could ever be.

But, thankfully, she wouldn’t be more like Jesus.

Jesus set the perfect example of ministry, and it wasn’t based on introversion or extroversion. He did as well with crowds as with one-on-one encounters. He often sought solitude, but also welcomed interruptions to it. He was led not by personal preference, but by the Spirit of truth and compassion.

I love the story where Jesus feeds the five thousand. It starts off with him taking a boat to a quiet place, seeking to pray and recharge after long days of ministry. When he gets to shore, he sees that the crowds have followed him there. It’s an introvert’s worst nightmare; I know I’d be plotting my escape strategy. But Matthew says, “He had compassion on them and healed their sick.” Even when the disciples urge him to send the people away, he tells them to stay and provides a miraculous meal for them.

As Matthew continues to document his ministry, the pattern remains: Jesus withdraws, people find him, and he has compassion on them. As an introvert, this is both encouraging and challenging to me, and I suspect it would be the same for my extroverted friends (for opposite reasons). I’m encouraged that withdrawing isn’t a bad thing. If Jesus thought solitude was worth pursuing, there must be deep value in it. On the flip side, I’m challenged by the notion that I must be willing to be interrupted, even in my need for quiet.

No one ever promised me that ministry would be easy. I’m not surprised by the fact that my comfort zone needs to be expanded, and I’m learning to be more bold and open with people. But I’m also learning that there’s a place for my introversion. It’s my natural circuit breaker, telling me when I need to sit quietly with God and reconnect with his heart.

Apart from Him, any ministry I do is futile. But with Him, even my weaknesses become strengths.

 


Photo: State Library Victoria Collections, Creative Commons

 

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The View From Here

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As I type, I can see cliffs and gardens out the window: Southern France in all her glory, bathed in blue skies and sunshine. We arrived here last week, and it’s still sinking in that this is our home now. I never imagined living somewhere so beautiful.

A year ago, we were living in Kosovo, and I had just found out that I was pregnant. I remember feeling weak and afraid, looking out the window at the dusty minarets and the swarms of blackbirds. I couldn’t picture where we would live as a family, but I knew it wasn’t there. It had been a hard year for me, and I was ready to move on, start fresh somewhere new.

Fresh is a good way to describe this place. The air is warm and dry, and everything grows here. There are cherries at the market now, and later this season we’ll have olives, grapes, and figs. A river runs through the village with waters are so clear you can see every little pebble on the bottom. Flowers bloom wild on its banks.

In town, ancient stone houses nest one against another. Cats lounge on their sunny windowsills, framed by oh-so-French blue shutters and red geraniums. Neighbors say bonjour with the kind of gusto you only hear in small villages. Their eyes crinkle at the sight of my baby.

I love it here.

I’m sure culture shock and language frustration will hit me soon enough, but for now, I’m thankful and awed. Every time Sam and I walk over the bridge, I look out over the river and tell him, I can’t believe this is our life.

I always thought I was built for hard places. I thought I’d live among the poor and the war-torn. I thought my hair would always smell like lignite coal. I cannot stress enough how much this beauty and abundance has surprised me. 

I wish I could go back a year ago, tell that scared pregnant girl that things were about to get really good. I wish I could tell her that the view from her window was about to change drastically. That it would go from a sooty Soviet-style nursing home to a lush garden. That she would start her mornings with her little boy on her hip, opening the blue shutters together and breathing in the fresh air.

I’m not into the prosperity gospel. I’m a firm believer in the value of suffering—perhaps even a little too much for my own good. But I do want to say, as I look out my window, that God gives good gifts to his children. He is not lacking in beauty or resources. He loves a good surprise, loves to give exactly what will bring refreshment to our hearts.

If we hadn’t have learned to follow him into the suffering, we probably wouldn’t have followed him here, and we would have missed out on so much.

But here we are, and it is beautiful.

 

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Long-Gone American Dream

Luftphilia

This week, my Facebook was inundated with friends in graduation robes, proudly adding letters to the ends of their names. They will go on to become professors, doctors, pastors, and artists. They’ll be successful, and I hope they’ll be happy too.

As I look into their smiling faces, I can’t help but think that I could have been them. In fact, I would have been them, had God not intervened in my life plans. But here I am, far from the professional world, rocking a baby and fundraising my salary.

I’ve walked so far away from the American dream, I probably won’t ever get it back. 

My future holds no white picket fences, no suburban comforts. If I do get back into the normal workforce, I’ll never earn as much as if I’d stayed the course. I don’t regret opting out, but it’s sobering to know that I’ve likely passed the point of no return.

I’m a mom with an arts degree, a sparse resume, and a track record of working for free. The last time I had a semi-normal job, I got paid in food and tent space. And that was four years ago.

During my senior year of college, my options for post-grad life seemed endless. I had job interviews lined up. I was considering graduate school. I knew which volunteer programs would look best on a future resume. But I ended up walking away from all of these. Instead, I chose to enroll in an intensive discipleship school. I believed God was calling me to take some time out of my busy life to focus on Him and learn to be a better part of His church.

I thought it would only take six months, but it ended up becoming my whole life.

I made no intentional vow of poverty, but my life took a surprisingly monastic turn from that point on. I found myself in service roles, doing work that was “rewarding,” but not literally, you know…rewarding. Instead of a wedding registry, my husband and I asked for the funds to volunteer abroad. We moved to Eastern Europe and worked in schools, churches, and missions organizations. We produced free articles, blogs, and music. We committed ourselves to doing whatever God asked of us, trusting that He would provide the means for us to do it.

After a couple years, we became parents—the ultimate unpaid volunteer gig. Now we’re working with the organization that started it all: we’re leading a discipleship school just like the one I attended after college, and we’re fundraising our way through it.  

Of course, plenty of our friends are just as poor as we are. Piles of college debt and a rough economy haven’t made the American dream easy on our generation. But while many of our friends are beginning to settle down—buying houses, adopting pets—we’re still running in the opposite direction.

When given the choice between financial security and Jesus, we can’t help but choose Jesus. Even when it seems impossible or scary or irresponsible. Even when it means going through another embarrassing round of asking people for money. Even when I wake up in the middle of the night wondering why we don’t just get real jobs.

Life with God is simply better. I got a taste of it with that school, and now I can’t stop.

Every once in a while, I look over my shoulder at my could-have-been American dream. I imagine myself in a cap and gown or in a cubicle wearing business casual. I scroll through home design boards on Pinterest. But I know now that it wouldn’t have satisfied my heart.

Following God looks different for everyone, but for me, it meant abandoning that life and trust-falling into His arms. In the process, I discovered how how warm and inviting His embrace could be. I saw His generosity, His attention to every little detail, and how He fulfilled dreams I didn’t even know I had.

I watched as He made this impossible life possible for me.

It may not be the American dream, and it may be scary some days, but this life is also good. Now that I’m here, I wouldn’t give up this baby-rocking, blog-writing, missional life for all the white picket fences in the world.

 


Photo: Luftphilia, Creative Commons

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Resurrection for Mamas

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Today is Easter Sunday. Today, Jesus rips out of the grave in a wham-bam display of divine power and love. It’s a day for big God gestures, the way men pull out all the stops to propose to their future wives. And the church, like a surprised bride, jumps up and down, says, Yes.

But today, I’m staying home. Somewhere between planning car arrangements and thinking about how many people would try to touch my baby’s hands, I decided not to go to church. I simply wasn’t up for it. The big-gesture, big-response event sounded exhausting.

Today, I don’t just want Jesus of the Easter resurrection. I want Jesus of the everyday resurrection. I want the Jesus who is continuously making all things new, who holds it all together.

Because I need eternal salvation, but I also need to be saved from the laundry.

I need someone to push the reset button on my spirit when I’m frustrated by frequent nursing and nap refusal. I need someone to speak encouragement to my heart, to assure me that I’m doing some things right. I need everyday miracles: sleep and coffee and baby smiles.

I need resurrection for mamas, which looks like showering, leaving the house, or finally getting 6 hours of sleep. Church and Bible study might have to wait a few more weeks. Today, give me the little things that make a mama feel human again. 

A few months ago, I would have balked at this small theology. I would have rolled my eyes at another mommy blogger talking about her laundry. I would have gone back to reading about liberation theology or something. I would have looked for the big-gesture God.

But then I became a mom, and my world collapsed into a profound smallness.

Now, I spend all day in the same small room, with the same small boy, doing the same small tasks. My theology has grown legs and begun walking around, because what I believe about God determines how I will treat my family. I need good theology—even when it seems small—to be patient and joyful with my son, no matter how sleepless or monotonous the day has been.

My eyes are on Jesus of the everyday resurrection, because I need him to do this job well. I need his small kindnesses. I need his gentle voice. I need his example of sacrifice, and his assurance that when I pour out everything, there’ll still be enough.

He is the one who keeps this mama going, who brings her back to life over and over again.

Today, I’m thankful for the empty grave, but I’m even more thankful that Jesus, after rising from the dead, showed up at his disciples’ work with breakfast (John 21:12). Because this is the kind of God a mama needs. Not the big-gesture God, but the everyday lover, who brings us coffee just because.

This Jesus gives me hope and guidance, comfort and strength.

Hallelujah, He is risen. And this mama is alive.

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I Don’t Always Love The Bible

Jona Park

I read a lot of Christian blogs, from conservative evangelicals to liberal charismatics, and the one thing they all agree on is how much they love the Bible. They talk about it all the time—how important, how beautiful this book is to them. Sometimes it’s downright gushy.

Confession: Rarely do I have romantic feelings towards my Bible. Sometimes, I even dislike it. 

Raised in the Lutheran tradition of sola scriptura, I’ve spent the last twenty years of my life reading, memorizing, and listening to teachings about the Bible. I know this book better than any other. But some days, I just can’t bring myself to open it.

If the other bloggers knew my reading habits, I’d surely be kicked out of the club. I read a tweet the other day that essentially said “if you don’t read your Bible, I don’t have much use for you.” Because loving the Bible is like a secret password: without it, no one will let you in the clubhouse, let alone listen to you.

It’s not that I don’t believe the Bible is important. Like most Christians, I believe it’s the inspired word of God, living and active for thousands of years. I believe it has the power to change lives, and could tell about a lot of ways that it’s changed mine.

But reading it hurts sometimes.

Reading it reminds me of abusive teachers, hurtful theologies, and guilt-led ministries. Reading it reminds me of the countless leaders who’ve used the text to convince followers that God “clearly says” they’re right. Reading it reminds me that American Christianity is often deeply flawed and alienating.

Some passages have become like land mines to me: I can barely tiptoe over them without triggering memories of the words being used for condemnation. A woman must be silent. The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in them.

I have always held a deep belief that God loves me, that He sees me, that He wants to include me in His restorative plan for the world. It is only the Bible and its terrible misuse that has ever made me doubt this in the slightest. It is only the harshness of my fellow believers, armed with verses and ready to thump, that has ever made me feel unwelcome before the throne of God.

The Bible describes itself as a sword, but it was never meant to be used to take each other down. It was always meant to be a destroyer of our own pride, our own selfishness. It convicts, but that conviction brings freedom, not shame.

Unfortunately, this isn’t our typical public experience of the Bible, and that can trickle down into our private moments with the Word.

I often fantasize about living far outside Christian culture and being able to read the Bible without any preconceived ideas about what it means. Or living in the time before the printing press, when the gospel was spread by word of mouth and the nature of God had to be experienced firsthand.

Because the truth is, I’d really love to love the Bible. 

I’d love to be like those bloggers, who swear up and down that the Bible is their favorite book. I’d like to believe that they aren’t just trying to gain enough Christian street cred to be heard, but that they really and truly see something hopeful in this text.

I have these little glimmers of it: a verse grabs my heart, a theme stirs my spirit. The words leap off the page and do something real in me. My mind changes. My actions change. My relationships change. And I feel beloved, included in the family of God.

It’s not an everyday occurrence, but it’s been enough to keep me coming back to that book, gingerly opening the pages, flinching a little at those land mine passages, but reading anyway.

It’s been enough to remind me that God doesn’t hold my reading habits over my head, threatening to boot me out of the club. He listens to me whether or not I’ve been disciplined in my quiet times, whether or not I’m doctrinally sound. And he whispers back: I’m glad you’re here.

 


Photo: Jona Park, Creative Commons 

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The Joy of the Unplanned

Jon Page

In a gas station bathroom in Kosovo, I finally said what I’d suspected for weeks: I think I’m pregnant. It was the strangest confessional, with my friend in one stall and me holding back nausea in the other. She gasped at the words and came out beaming at me.

Weeks before, she and I had been talking about birth control. She was planning a wedding and felt a little stuck when it came to her reproductive options. There seemed to be two basic paths: either avoid pregnancy like the plague or have babies right away. I told her how I’d felt roped into the same binary, and how I hadn’t wanted to do either. I didn’t feel comfortable taking hormones on a regular basis, and I wanted to let God give us a child in his timing, but I also didn’t really want to get pregnant right away.

While most people I knew were either desperately trying or not trying to have children, I felt a strong desire to leave it unplanned. I was conscious of the fact that we didn’t ultimately have control over when we’d have children—fertility isn’t a given, and even the most faithful birth control methods fail sometimes—and I wanted to embrace that reality and God’s sovereignty in it.

So we decided to take a middle path. Sam and I prayed about it, and we felt peace about leaving room for error, knowing that our lives could drastically change at any moment, but trusting that it would be the right moment.

We had almost two years of being happily childless, and then the moment came. It was equal parts exciting and terrifying, but ultimately, it felt right.

My friend understood this perfectly—she knew it was a gift, planned or not—and she celebrated the possibility of life inside me. But once we officially confirmed the pregnancy and started telling others, I was shocked by how many asked, Was it planned? with wide, fearful eyes. 

First of all, as a public service announcement, let me tell you that this is not an appropriate question. A woman’s birth control choice is never your business, and asking whether or not a pregnancy was planned is essentially the same as asking what pills she’s taking. So please, just don’t.

But this question was also troublesome to me because I felt like there was no easy way to explain that unplanned didn’t mean unwanted or accidental. It quickly became apparent to me that in middle-class American culture, there was an expectation that reproduction be carefully controlled, that children always be planned and only after careful consideration of finances and life goals. Anything else was reckless, perhaps even a mistake.

But this was no accident. It was a deliberate surrender of control to a God who gives good gifts.

Consider Mary, the mother of Jesus, and one of my favorite heroes of faith. In the Christmas story, the angel doesn’t ask her if she wants to get pregnant, he tells her that she will give birth. Remarkably, Mary seems okay with this, even though it means she’ll be risking everything. She has this profound spirit of obedience to God, which had to have been established long before the angel showed up on her doorstep. She isn’t afraid of surrendering control—she trusts that it’s a gift.

I admire Mary because she had a yes in her spirit even before she knew what would be asked of her. I suspect this is why God chose to do something incredible through her: she’d already decided to give him control, no matter what.

I’m not suggesting that everyone should run off and get pregnant to prove their faith, but I think there’s a lot we can learn from Mary’s example. While our culture teaches control and security, Mary’s story reminds us that there is joy and profound possibility in the unplanned. Instead of fear or anxiety, she embraces the unknown with a peaceful heart, and it ends up bringing the salvation of the world.

I don’t have such lofty expectations for my own pregnancy, but I do identify with her joy and hope that God is doing a new thing on the earth. And I share in her excitement that I get to carry it.

I don’t know what my life will look like after I give birth, and I don’t know who this child will grow up to be, but I do know that all the curveballs God has sent my way have turned out to be the most beautiful detours, and I expect no less of this one.

 


Photo: Jon Page, Creative Commons 

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Pregnancy, Mystery, and God

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From the start of the pregnancy, my husband and I assumed we would find out the gender of our baby. My midwife doesn’t offer ultrasounds, so we started saving up to have one at a local clinic, and I anxiously awaited the weeks when Baby would make him or herself visible. This time just happened to fall during a month-long stay in a tiny French village. I shrugged it off, thinking I could be patient until we got back to the States.

What I didn’t expect is that, by the time we got home, I didn’t want the ultrasound anymore.

Somewhere between baguettes and the millionth person asking “Do you know what you’re having?”  (answer: A baby, I hope!), I started asking myself why I wanted to know. And the answer wasn’t a very good one. From the day I took the pregnancy test, I’d had a strong intuition what the gender was, and even though I’d be equally happy to have a girl or a boy, I really wanted to know if I was right.

Because it’s all about me, after all.

Once I realized the state of my heart, I knew I couldn’t go through with the ultrasound. The mother in me wanted to protect this baby from all the crazy assumptions and expectations people put on an infant—myself included. I didn’t want to hear what terrors I should expect from a little boy. I didn’t want to receive frilly dresses for a little girl. I didn’t want to elevate being “right” above letting my baby be utterly itself and loving that person like crazy.

The easiest way to ensure this is to keep everything about my child a total mystery. Life post-birth will be another story, but for now, Baby remains safely hidden inside me—no pokes, no ultrasounds, and no more assumptions.

As I’ve learned to accept this hiddenness, I’ve been convicted about the way I relate to another mystery: God.

People say a lot of strange things about my baby (Was it planned?  That’s definitely a boy belly!), but these comments don’t even begin to compete with the weird, made-up things we say about God. It’s incredibly popular in our culture to assign all kinds of attributes to God that he never revealed about himself: political views, opinions on current issues, indictments of people we don’t like, and on and on.    

God shows us a lot of his character in the Bible, but we have a hard time reading what he says without bringing our own opinions and cultural assumptions to the table. I’m just as guilty as the next person when it comes to this, and I have the benefit of having lived outside of my culture for extended periods of time. It is not an easy habit to quit.

It’s tempting to want to pull back the curtain on God, to make him seem more real by giving him extra personality or modern sensibilities. But God is a full personality—the ultimate I AM, in fact. When Jesus returns and establishes a kingdom where God and humans dwell together, we’ll see God as the fully real, fully alive being he is. But that’s not how it is right now.

Right now, we have to live with a little mystery.

I’ve noticed that American Christians in particular are really uncomfortable with saying, “I don’t know.” Somewhere along the way, someone told us that we had to have the right answers, that the Bible had a “clear” response to every modern-day issue. So we make assumptions, and pretty soon those assumptions start sounding like facts, and we start sounding a little (or a lot) arrogant.

It’s a nasty cycle, and it could all be avoided by those three little words: I don’t know.

I’ve been saying them a lot lately. Even when people ask me my due date, I give them a rough estimate, because I don’t know for sure. This baby will come when and how it wants, exactly who it is, and there’s not much I can do about it. There’s an odd joy and freedom in that, at least for me. And I’m beginning to find the same pleasure in God’s mysteriousness.

He is who he is. He somehow lives within me, and yet has his being totally apart from me. When we meet face-to-face, I’ll know him. For now, I can only catch hints, the way I feel my baby change positions inside me.

The relationship between us is no less beautiful for its mystery.

I love the intimacy of keeping my child’s secrets, even from myself, and I believe that same loving protectiveness is possible when it comes to God. It is a gift to let him be who he is, to let him reveal himself in his own time. To say with hands lifted and heart humbled: I don’t know, but you do, and that’s enough.  

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