Just Mending | Thoughts on Women in Church Leadership

UNEXPECTED MESSAGE

Yesterday, while working my way through three different books about women in the Church, I needed a bookmark. Opening the drawer of our end table, I found a slip of 2” x 8.5” paper – something a neighbor dropped off to promote her sewing business. “Just Mending” it reads at the top. “Do you have clothes that need repair?”

I hesitated. It’s not really a bookmark. What if I lose this thing? I’ll never be able to replace that broken zipper on my Uggs. Does she even repair Uggs? Uggs aren’t clothes – they’re boots. Seriously, Nichole, are you ever going to call this lady anyway? But…

And then I read the title again, “Just Mending”. God speaks to us in the most unexpected ways, doesn’t He?

I folded the slip of paper in half and placed it in Chapter 1 of Jo Saxton’s More than Enchanting. Then I piled all the books together just so and took this lovely photo for you:Reading these books has been like walking along the ocean’s edge. Sometimes the waters lap at my toes and ankles. Other times, the waves crash into me, soaking my legs, knocking me off balance. I stumble as the sand sucks at my feet, and flail my arms to steady myself.

Anyone who’s spent a day at the beach knows that the sun, the sand and the waves work a sort of magic on your mind and body…leaving you somehow relaxed, revived and exhausted, all at once.

The words of these books, the stories, wisdom, reassurances and revelations, crash over me, wave after wave. Sometimes gentle. Sometimes startling

The emotions vary, ranging from joy to sadness to anger to regret to hope, but the feeling that most surprises me is what I can only describe as a sort of comfort. I’m not talking about a warm-hugs-fuzzy-blanket-hot-cup-of-tea kind of comfort. No. I’m talking about a heart-breaking-open, pain-spilling-out, poison-leaving-your-body, soothing-truth kind of comfort. I can literally feel the Lord’s truth rushing in…the lies, the hurt, the pain rushing out.

Thousands of years since the fall, thousands more since the resurrection of Christ, decades since I started following Him, and God is still flushing the poison from my veins.

The sensation, at times, overwhelms. I did not expect this.

AN ITCH I COULDN’T SCRATCH

Growing up, I had very little exposure to church or Christian culture. I became a believer as a teenager, simply because I was desperate for Jesus. I doubted so much – God’s goodness, the existence of heaven, the reliability of the Bible.

But there was one thing I knew for sure: Jesus.
When I could hardly breathe, Jesus.
When I was paralyzed with fear, Jesus.
When I was lonely, Jesus.
When I was condemned, Jesus.
When I was hopeless, Jesus.

“Lord, I believe, help me in my unbelief,” became my daily prayer. He has answered faithfully.

By some blessed miracle, God revealed to me that understanding and even agreeing with everything in the Bible, are not prerequisites for following Jesus. So I entrusted my doubts to Him and have been walking in the dust of the Rabbi ever since.

I acclimated to Christian culture slowly, very slowly. (I think I’m still acclimating.) One thing I’ve wrestled with for a long time is the role of women in the Church.

I love our church. It has been, for many years, our home, our family. The people of Wintonbury are my people, our hearts tethered to one another by the Spirit of God. And my church is filled with strong, gifted, Jesus-loving women who lead in more ways than I know.

Women are not, however, free to teach authoritatively at Wintonbury. While many churches hold to that belief, they can each apply it differently. For us, it means that women cannot serve as elders (our governing board) or teach from the platform (pulpit). Seems simple but it gets a little weird when you think too hard about it. What is “teaching” exactly? Is it only when you “exegete”? Why can a woman share a brief message, a song she wrote or her testimony from the platform? What if a woman writes something that someone else reads from the platform? When, exactly, does God’s truth have less or no authority?

This confused me, but I saw the hearts of the people at Wintonbury, I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit there, so I entrusted to the Lord my doubts about their position on women in the church. And just kept following Jesus.

Over the years, moving through various lay ministry and staff positions, I have not reached a place of peace about this issue. Even though I have never longed to be an elder or a pastor, even though I have never felt compelled to teach a congregation, it niggled at me, like an itch I could never quite scratch.

As a “strong” woman, with “strong” opinions and a “loud” voice, I have been known to upset an elder or two. I have asked tough questions and said hard things and been accused of being “disrespectful”. And I have wrestled with what this means. Am I wrong? Should I be meeker? Quieter? Is disagreeing with my brother, elder or not, disrespectful? Or is it a healthy conversation that may provide an alternative perspective for consideration? Does God want me to sit down and shut up?

Well, He wants all of us to sit down and shut up sometimes! But not always. I know because I find myself begging Him, Really God? Really? You want me to go and say that? Again? Isn’t there anyone else? And He answers, “Go.”

So I go. Remembering that I don’t have to understand every Biblical passage or agree with all-things-Christian-culture to follow Jesus. A little unsure and afraid, but holding Jesus’s hand, I go.

WHEN EVERYTHING CHANGED

Then last year, everything changed. As my readers already know, my family was wounded by a conflict at church that deeply affected our daughters, my husband and me.

It pains me to say that some of our church’s male leadership played a significant role in this conflict. Pains me because these men are our brothers, our co-laborers, our friends. They love the Lord and want to do what’s right and good. We love them. And, I believe, they love us, too. I do not want you to worry about the who or what or why or how. Know this: as in any conflict, we all made mistakes, and those involved have exhibited good intentions, concern, accountability, humility and grace. If you must do something, do this: mourn with us, lament for what’s been lost, weep for the brokenness of Christ’s Church and the disunity of His people. And pray for God to restore what the locusts have eaten.

I am sharing our story so that you will more clearly see this: We desperately needed women leaders to help resolve this conflict and to address the consequences that followed. But this didn’t happen…at first…

The hearts of women were central to this conflict. And male leadership was a significant part of the conflict. Add to this the fact that I am on staff, and the circle of involvement gets a little funky. In following the steps for Biblical conflict resolution, when it came time to involve another individual, we couldn’t reach out to a friend or lay leader. To protect the church and all involved, we needed to go straight to the leadership. And all the leadership is male.

We underestimated just how insufficient that would be. After a few weeks, I observed that we had to really work to help men understand the problems, but if I said three sentences about the issue to my mother or our women’s ministry director, they understood instantly. Women did provide support briefly, for specific reasons, but any momentum was quickly lost when their part was finished. Still, I wasn’t ready to accept that male leadership alone was inadequate. So I continued to walk the exhausting, precarious tightrope between advocating and submitting.

We asked God to resolve the situation. He didn’t. We asked God to release us and let us walk away. He didn’t. After nine long months, the situation had grown, its tentacles far beyond our family’s reach. That was when God gave us permission to let go. Not to leave, but to lay it down.

A couple of weeks later, two women in the church picked it up. When I told one of them that I didn’t want her to think we were giving up, she said, “Maybe it’s time for you to let others do the heavy lifting for a while.”

With a strength only God could have provided, these women leaned into the heavy boulder of the consequences of this conflict and began to move forward.

Because of these women, some things began to change. Not because the men were unfit, but because, in this situation, they were incomplete. This issue involved the hearts, minds and lives of men and women. To address the issue completely, we needed men and women to lead.

My gratitude to these women is best described by the tears welling up as I write. Perhaps take a moment to thank God for them, for how they have worked diligently, faithfully and passionately for our church family to the glory of God.

JUST MENDING

This experience has caused me to actively seek answers to my nagging questions about the role of women in the Church. As I feast on books like Jesus Feminist, and How I Changed My Mind About Women in Leadership, and More than Enchanting, I find that, like Ruth Haley Burton, I have not changed my mind about women in leadership but instead “I finally let myself believe something I had always known.” (How I Changed my Mind About Women in Leadership, p35)

That women are fully equal to men and should be fully free to serve God however He calls them. The body of Christ, and the world we seek to reach for Jesus, will be better for it.

As I continue to be overcome with many emotions, I find myself anxiously asking, What has this done to my daughters? What kind of changes do I need to make in my life? Who do I tell? What should I do? And on and on…

But then I look at my makeshift bookmark that reads “Just Mending” and I’m reminded of the heart-breaking-open, pain-spilling-out, poison-leaving-my-body, soothing-truth comfort that feels a lot like healing.

And I hear God say, Don’t worry about that, Nichole. Right now, we’re just mending.

What It’s Like to be a White, Conservative, Christian Woman on Facebook These Days

FEELING A LITTLE RIDICULOUS 

On Friday, January 20, I shared a photo of me and two friends at the spa. The overnight was a birthday gift to my friend from her husband and we were ridiculously spoiled. Seriously. While I was receiving my Swedish massage, and, in particular, when the massage therapist wrapped my feet in warm towels, I kept repeating over and over in my mind, this is so good, it’s ridiculous. And trust me when I say, visions of starving children, women marching on Washington and homeless people huddled around fires paraded through my mind more than once.

Before posting the photo of us, my friends and I joked about the caption and landed on this: “Some women march on Washington. We march to the spa. #merica”

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It was ironic. And silly. And yes, ridiculous. But that was the point.

At first glance, some may have just seen three privileged white women. And I suppose we are. But that’s not the whole story. Is it ever?

A BRIEF HISTORY

In rural Connecticut 1973, I was born the daughter of white teenagers. One set of grandparents were Polish immigrants, coal miners and tobacco farmers. The other set farmers and blue collar workers. My parents divorced when I was two and my dad left us. My mother remarried and they had a son, but when I was six, my stepfather became ill. To support our family, my mom worked a full-time insurance job and waitressed at night. We moved 21 times before I was twelve, the same year my stepfather died, at which point my mother bought a house. Even though we moved a lot, I attended the same school district in Simsbury, Connecticut for 12 years. Then, in the midst of a rebellious adolescence, I became a follower of Jesus Christ.

When I was 18, I met a white man at a local, beach volleyball pit (sand, no beach). He had lived his entire life in Simsbury, had just graduated junior college and was painting houses for a living. His parents were married as were his grandparents; they were financial professionals, doctors and nurses. We had our first daughter together when I was 19 and he was 23. We married that same year and had a second daughter seven years later. Over the years, my husband has worked his way up through the aerospace division of a local company and I have focused primarily on being a mom while working as a nursery school director, bookkeeper and now, a church Communications Director. We own a 1500 square foot cape and I drive a used car, enabling us to pay for private high school, college tuition and travel more than we once did. (Though my husband’s frequent flyer points come in handy!) We are also active in our church and community and do what we can with our time and money to make the world a better place. Could we do more? Definitely.

ABOUT MY PRIVILEGE AND WHO I AM TODAY

Do you recognize privilege in that story? I do. I’m white in a country that has a history of oppressing people of other races and ethnicities. I had a parent who provided for me and grandparents who helped when they could. I had the opportunity to attend one of the nation’s top public school systems. I married a white man who had two parents, grew up in the same education system and whose parents paid for him to go to college. Our families continue to live nearby and have always been supportive.

I am grateful for all the opportunities that I have had, especially because most of those are not privileges I chose. I did not choose my skin color, my parents, my school system or my husband’s background.

Yet there are other, less glamorous things I didn’t choose, as well. I know what it’s like to grow up poor in a wealthy town. To have a fourth-grade teacher tell my best friend, in front of the class, that I am “no good” and not to hang around me, simply because I live in the wrong part of town with an unconventional family. To be home with a sick parent and baby brother while the other parent works nights. To share a two-bedroom apartment with my mom, brother and grandparents. To juggle school and an afterschool job with whatever extracurriculars I can manage. To be made fun of for being a stupid, clumsy “Polack”.

My friends from the photo have similar stories. They were not rich and their lives were not easy. But, yes; they, like me, were born with some privileges. They, like me, do not know what it is to grow up oppressed. But they, like me, do not take that for granted. They are kind, compassionate, loving women who are committed to their families, work harder than half the people I know and give of their time, talents and money to make the world a better place.

Perhaps the greatest irony is that these two women and I are a united voice for the equality of women in the Christian church and culture. We are also, in various ways, actively engaged in ministries such as racial reconciliation, investing in under-resourced communities, the fight against human trafficking in Connecticut and bettering the lives of those in Greater Hartford and around the world.

AFRAID

How I hate to think that my post of the three of us offended and perhaps even hurt people we care about. I generally avoid political discourse on social media for that very reason – because I have friends, colleagues, family and acquaintances on far ends of the political spectrum and I love them all. I never want our political differences to come between us. Ever.

But, if I’m being totally honest, as a Christian woman who leans conservative but also does not fit in the classic conservative box, I feel marginalized when it comes to having a voice that is respected in the current atmosphere, especially on social media. I am not suggesting that my plight is the same as that of a black woman or a gay teenager or a Muslim immigrant. I simply want you to know that I do feel a bit bullied into silence; and most of that pressure comes from other women. I am truly afraid to say what I believe for fear of being misunderstood, judged, lashed out against and so on. But most of all, I am afraid of losing my friends.

In this era of click-bait headlines, soundbites and comedy show newsgathering, who has time to hear my story of how I was adamantly pro-choice until I experienced the physical, emotional and spiritual ravages of abortion firsthand? Who wants to sit down over a cup of tea and hear me tell of my first and limited childhood experiences with people of another race, and how that unknowingly shaped my relationships with black people for decades thereafter? Who wants to hear me explain why I believe that individuals, churches and other shared-value organizations can better meet people’s needs than the government ever will? That I would love to be able to give more of my time and income to building relationships with people and investing in their lives?

Can you be curious or interested or respectful, without shutting me out or scrolling away?

HEARING IS SOMETHING WE DO

The question is the same for me as it is for you. Are we willing to hear one another? Biblically, the word “hear” is often used as an active verb that results in the hearer doing something in response to what he or she heard. On a good day, we may listen to the words we say, but how often do we really hear?

Actually, have you ever noticed that the word “hear” is literally part of the word “heart”? To truly know you, to know your very heart, I must do more than listen, I must hear.

So if we were to try to hear one another today, to know one another’s hearts, what would be the “doing” part? I’m no expert, but after all this blah blah-ing I thought I’d offer up a suggestion that begins and ends with love.

  1. Love: Love is a choice and a verb. So, first, choose to love the person despite your differences, by being kind, compassionate, truthful, respectful, and gracious.
  2. Let Go: Set aside prejudice, judgment and all defensive weapons. (I’m thinking figurative weapons but setting down literal weapons is probably a good idea, too.)
  3. Listen: Pay attention to what the person is truly saying, not what you think they are saying.
  4. Look: Try to see things from their perspective. Ask yourself, what does life or this issue look like to them? How does this differ from my experience?
  5. Learn: Seek and embrace new insights and understanding from their knowledge and experience. There is always something to learn.
  6. Love: Continue to actively love the person regardless of your differences. Then consider (and ask God) how what you learned can help you better love those around you.

Wouldn’t it be great if we were able to hear what’s truly on the hearts of those women who didn’t feel represented at the march? What about those who felt so compelled to go that they gave up time, energy and money to travel across the country to march in the freezing cold? Imagine if we made an effort to understand the neighbor who voted for Trump, or the sister who voted for Clinton or the co-worker who voted for a third-party candidate.

Or this lady, who voted for Ron Swanson.

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BEGIN AND END WITH LOVE

I know I’m beginning to sound a bit like a Beatles song or a Coke commercial, so I will wrap up with this: in my experience, I have found that most of us, at our core, want the same things.  We love our families, our friends and neighbors and we want them to experience all the best that life offers. We love our country and this world. We are seeking what is good and right and best for our future and the future of those who come after us. We may not always agree on how to get there, but our hearts all long for the same things – truth, goodness, beauty and love.

This very universe we inhabit began with love and someday, will end with love. And all the acts of truth, goodness and beauty that have colored in this vast, dark, mysterious expanse of time and space, will live on like gems refined in the fire of a thousand suns. So let us run after these things together. Truth. Goodness. Beauty. And may we always begin and end with love. ~NP

What do you think? What did I miss? Do you have anything to add? Or changes you can recommend? Because I am here and I want to hear you.

© Nichole Q Perreault

 

 

 

Winter’s Coming but Spring is Here | Reprise

This is one of my favorite, dearest, most precious blog posts ever  –  for no other reason that the power of the revelation God gave to me that day. I try to share this every year and today, with the snow and rain and bitter cold, seems like the perfect day to remind us all that Winter is Coming but Spring is Here. 

Winter. A season of painful exchanges: flip-flops for bulky jackets, warm breezes for

cold floors, the sound of crickets for the hum of the furnace, which, let’s face it, is basically the sound of money burning.

But the exchange that weighs on my body like a wet, wool coat, is that of light for darkness. Each autumn day, the coming winter snatches another two or three minutes of sunlight, replacing it with night. We wake in the dark, go to work in the dark, come home in the dark, eat dinner in the dark….

As of today, there are 53 more days of sliding headfirst into the abyss.

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I Heard Him in a Song

Three bars. That’s about all it takes. Three bars of this popular song:

and I’m itching to turn off the radio. Sometimes I listen, but most days it’s too painful.

On my brother’s first night in the hospital, I stayed with him. I sat in the recliner, while he drifted in an out of consciousness. As I waited through the quiet parts of the night, fear dominated my emotions. I could barely complete a thought, much less utter a coherent prayer. Desperate, I googled “healing prayers” and prayed words I couldn’t string together on my own. I tried to remember scripture and scrolled through my Bible app. I was not comforted.

Then I remembered the advice of a friend, “Invite Jesus into your difficult places.” So I prayed and invited Jesus into the hospital room, into our presence, into Derek’s presence.

A bit later, I found myself humming a song, one I didn’t know very well:

Holy Spirit, You are welcome here
Come flood this place and fill the atmosphere
Your glory, God, is what our hearts long for
to be overcome by Your presence, Lord

I didn’t know the name of the song. Couldn’t remember where I’d heard it before. And couldn’t remember any other lyrics. But there I was singing the chorus over and over again.

For the rest of the night, that song was my prayer. And I experienced a measure of peace. God was with us. I could feel His presence.

In the days and weeks that followed, I watched my brother teeter on the edge of death more times than I want to remember. I tried, on every occasion, to welcome the Holy Spirit’s presence. But some days, my faith was like sand running through my fingers. I couldn’t hold onto it and the harder I tried, the faster it ran out.

One day, after leaving the hospital, feeling completely bankrupt of spirit, I couldn’t bring myself to pray, let alone to hope.

What does God think, I wondered, when I don’t have any faith? What would he say to me now, when I can’t bring myself to speak to Him? Is He angry? Disappointed?

Then something broke through my thoughts – a song playing on the radio:

Holy Spirit, You are welcome here
Come flood this place and fill the atmosphere…

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When Church Hurts Like Hell

To the weary one, who has gone to church hoping to feel encouraged, accepted, inspired, but instead came away wounded, beaten and bruised…you are not alone. And I am so sorry.

I wish that never happened to you. I wish that never happened to me. I wish that never happened to anyone. Unfortunately, it happens all the time.

Why? Because people. That’s why.

People hurt. And the church is people. And so, church hurts.

No, that’s not how it’s supposed to be. But nothing in this fallen world is how it’s supposed to be. Not even the church. Not even God’s people. Which is probably why the Bible teems with reminders, instructions and commands about how to get along, how to do this thing we call community, how to live broken and love the broken.

Have you ever seen someone create mosaic art by hand? They begin the long process by mixing earth and water to mold the tiles, which are then dried, cut and fired. The artist then breaks those tiles into smaller pieces – cutting and chipping, sanding edges or sharpening a point, pressing the pieces into a muddy sort of clay before washing them clean. Hundreds, thousands of broken pieces fit together to reveal one, complete, stunning master-piece.

When the sun is shining and I believe God is good and my spirit overflows with gratitude, that’s how I envision community: broken lives on broken lives – with all our imperfect shapes and sharp edges and rough surfaces – being fit together and made to shine. In the hands of the Master, we become a Master-piece.

That’s on a good day. And with spiritual eyes that see through the veil of a fallen world.

But on a bad day…oh, on the bad days, I am fractured glass sinking in mud. Like quicksand, it pulls me under. On every side I am pressed and scratched and pulled and scraped. I want nothing more than to escape. What beauty, I wonder, could ever come of this? Hopeless. On bad days, I am hopeless.

Because sometimes church hurts like hell.

Sometimes going to church feels like stepping onto a battlefied. You come armed and armored, like you’re bringing your fists to a pistol war. And if, like me, your church is not only your spiritual home and family, but your place of work, there’s no escape. Which has been both a challenge and a gift. When church hurts, it’s complicated.

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Out of Darkness, Light | A Christmas Poem

Tough year to find time, energy and inspiration for a Christmas post. So I am resharing last year’s. I hope it blesses you. Merry Christmas!

Out of Darkness, Light

We walk in darkness
Stumbling, feet slipping
Grasping for something, anything to keep from falling

We scrape our hands on broken branches
Our knees on stony paths
In trying to save ourselves, we are wounded

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No Strings Attached | Why I Stopped Defending God

DONE DEFENDING GOD

I’m done defending God. To family. To friends. To you. To the world. But most of all, I’m done defending God to myself.

I gave it up several weeks ago – cold turkey, as they say – when something masquerading as a gift appeared nearby. Something that for now brings smiles and giddiness and dreams that buzz through skin like the flush of red wine. But like all young things, it carries the seeds of its own potential destruction. Beneath the shiny, crimson skin there lurks a poison. And I lie awake at night wondering which will be the fatal bite: the first, the fifth, the fiftieth?

Enraged would be a mild description of how I feel. Because I see what’s coming. I see a day when this imposter dressed in pretty colors slips off her overcoat to reveal the disappointment, the heartbreak. And I don’t want to watch my people hurt anymore.

What really burns is knowing that God could have prevented this. He could have prevented this. But He didn’t. So here I am. Again. Watching helplessly.

And I am tempted to try to talk myself out of this reality, to try to convince myself that God will do things differently this time…that He has a good reason…a bigger plan…a better plan.

It’s a thing we learn to do as Christians – to tell ourselves who God really is in spite of what the world tells us. As if we know who He really is. As if we can understand what He’s really doing.

RUMORS OF GOD

I know I’m probably freaking some of you out at this point, right? After all, aren’t we supposed to preach the gospel to ourselves, battle the lies with the truth of His word? Aren’t those good things? Yes, they are…until they aren’t.

Until they become just another work of the flesh, another attempt to figure God out, define the boundaries of who He is, carve out features we recognize, features that make us feel safe, or strong or big or small or whatever it is we think we need at the time.

So when confronted with this new circumstance, I was tempted to run and hide myself in the “truth”. I told myself things like “God won’t hurt her” and “If He does, it’s only for her good” and yada, yada, yada. But none of it rang true. Like oil on water, these “truths” refused to sink in. Because they weren’t real. They weren’t actually true.

What evidence do we have that God won’t hurt us? Or if He does, that it’s only for our good? Look at Job, for crying out loud. What did he get out of that hot mess? Nothing. Except, perhaps, a very painful learning experience, which he probably could have done just fine without.

As far as we can tell, God made Job suffer because of a bet He made with Satan.

And when, after immeasurable loss and suffering, Job finally presses God for an explanation, God doesn’t even try to defend himself. He doesn’t say “OK, here’s all the reasons I needed to let you suffer. Here’s why I’m still good. Here’s why you can still trust me.”

Not even close. Rather He turns on His booming master-of-the-universe voice and basically tells Job to suck it.

Where were you when I created the earth?
Tell me, since you know so much!
….Now what do you have to say for yourself?
Are you going to haul me, the Mighty One, into court and press charges? (Job, MSG)

Those are the bookends of a long speech in which God’s singular defense is His own awesomeness. He’s like “Job, shut up. Listen. I’m God. You think you can do the things I do? You think you can understand the things I understand? Well, you can’t. So just stop.”

It’s like the biggest non-answer answer in the history of the world. Jesus often used the same tactic. People asked a question and Jesus answered with a question.

And why shouldn’t He, when we go to Him demanding reasons or explanations that we can cut and measure and stack and cobble into an image of a god we can understand – a god we can shape and mold and fit into our human-sized minds. A god we can handle.

Even answers can become an idol. Even reasons and understanding and explanations can become gods if we want them more than we want God himself.

Job learned that the hard way.

I admit I once lived by rumors of you;
now I have it all firsthand—from my own eyes and ears! (Job, MSG)

Isn’t that what we do? We settle for rumors of God. Because a god whose motives and means we can understand…that’s a god we can control – a predictable god, a safe god, a god we can carry.

Only we’re so busy creating this god we can carry, we forget that what we really need is a God Who can carry us.

So I’m done listening to the rumors – yours, mine, anybody’s – about who God is. And I’m done feeding them to you. Because God doesn’t need defending. He didn’t defend himself to Job. He didn’t defend Himself on Calvary. So I’m pretty sure He’s not waiting on me to defend Him to anyone, including myself.

So from now on, when I look at God and see someone who’s always setting me up for the fall, like Lucy to Charlie Brown, I won’t try to convince myself otherwise.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe that’s not who He is, but if He wants me to know that, He can show me. It’s really up to Him, don’t you think?

NO STRINGS ATTACHED – A VISION

At around the same time that I made the decision to stop defending God, (which by the way is rather freeing) I had a “vision” of sorts. I was praying during worship (on THP, which I figure my daughter would like to know) and I saw this image of thousands and thousands of strings. And each string was attached on one end to God in heaven and on the other end, to a circumstance of my life here on earth. In that moment, I realized that my understanding of the Lord has always been tied to my circumstances, because I let life – the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly – define Him.

Then I saw giant shears, snipping away at the strings, five, 10, 20 at a time. And I heard God say, “No strings attached. Now, you will get to know me with no strings attached.”

And isn’t that what Job did? Isn’t that what it’s like to follow God with no explanations? No neat and tidy reasons?

I will not tie God to my circumstances anymore. For better or for worse. That means that bad things aren’t evidence of a bad God. And good things aren’t evidence of a good God. And I will just have to wait here to find out who He is.

I said before that it’s freeing – not defending God. It’s also terrifying. Like stepping off the edge of a cliff without a net.

I’m not gonna lie. It’s been painful. Painful. But it’s also real. And real is so much better than rumors.

Because above all else, I want my God to be real. It starts there, don’t you think? Because if He isn’t real, nothing else matters.

So I’ve been waiting. Afraid. Hurting. Angry. Doubtful.

And then one recent Sunday, I had the privilege of helping orchestrate a special communion service focused on the King of Love. While preparing for communion, the congregation reflected on which aspect of God’s love meant the most to them over the last year. People then wrote that word down on a piece of paper and, upon going up for communion, dropped their cards in a basket. During the remainder of worship, I categorized the cards and handed them to a friend who painted the words on a canvas, which our pastor revealed later, during his message about loving our enemies.

Photo by Nichole Q Perreault

Photo by Nichole Q Perreault

The service was powerful. (Listen here if you want!)

But for me, the sweetest moment came as I sat on the floor surrounded by hundreds of cards all proclaiming God’s active love for the person who penned each word.

Some cards shared the same word but each was unique, written by a different hand, a different person, with a different life experience. I read them over and over as the song played on: “You don’t give your heart in pieces…You don’t hide yourself to tease us…Your live is wild…Your love is not ashamed to be seen with me.” (Pieces by Amanda Cook)

There, spread out before me, was evidence of the real God, manifest in the lives of my people. Broken, hurting, joyful, thriving, aching, loving, battling people.

There on a torn carpet, surrounded by bits of paper and ink, He revealed Himself to me.

Strong. Unshakeable. Relentless. Enough. Faithful. Unspeakable. Patient. Long-suffering. Steadfast. Like the spring rain. Merciful. Costly. Perfect.

Photo by Nichole Q Perreault

Photo by Nichole Q Perreault

And I didn’t have to do a thing. I didn’t have to dig Him up or carve Him out or hunt Him down or figure Him out or defend Him to anyone, including myself.

“Here I am, Nichole.” It was as simple as that.

No strings attached.

 

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Afraid to Pray

I’m afraid to pray.

Not the talking-to-God-throughout-the-day kind of prayers. I’ve reached a point in my life where talking to Him is almost automatic – so much so that NOT talking to Him would require serious effort.

I’m talking about the petitioning prayers. The God-heal-my-friend prayers. The God-fix-this-relationship prayers. The God-show-us-what-to-do prayers.

For weeks, we prayed for my brother’s healing. For weeks, hundreds of people all around the world prayed for my brother’s healing. And there were miracles along the way, days when he defied the doctors’ predictions. Like when he started breathing on his own after a week on the respirator, or when he was readmitted to ICU for internal bleeding and the bleeding miraculously stopped, or when his kidneys began to work again after weeks on dialysis. And we praised God for the miracles and for answering the prayers of many.

The last week of Derek’s life, doctors planned to discharge him. Every day for three days, we waited. And every day for three days, they said, one more day. Until the last day, when they moved him, for the third and final time, back to ICU. He never came home.

Even though I know God doesn’t always answer our prayers the way we want…and even though I know people suffer and die every day…that we all die some day…that eventually God stops answering our prayers for healing and calls us all home…and even though I know God is unchanging and good and that His ways are higher than our ways…and even though I know that prayer is a mystery…that somehow God invites us to participate with Him in His divine plan but the outcome does not rely on us…even though I know all that, I’m still afraid to pray.

The pain and devastation, the feeling that God abandoned us – actually tricked us with answered prayer and then pulled the rug out from under our feet – snaps at the heels of my heart and mind like an angry dog. And I can’t run away.

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Finding Hope in God’s Plan (Even When Life Seems Hopeless)

The following was written as a devotional for our church’s Faith Quest 2015 team. Our theme this year is God’s Plan, Our Hope. 

As I prepared for this devotional, my first thought was, After the last two months, maybe I’m not the best person to write a message about finding hope in God’s plan. Perhaps a different Nichole, from a different time, a Nichole with a lighter heart with feathers and wings, might have something to say about hope. So I pored over my blog archives and, even though a few posts came close, nothing was quite right.

That’s when I decided to skip the devotional this year. After all, who reads it anyway? And then I heard that still, small voice saying, Maybe God wants you to dig into this topic for a reason. 

So here I am, dreading the dredging of my black, inky soul, the drawing out of the ugly and the real. Cringing as each keystroke scars this white page. Because right now, I’m not really a fan of God’s plan – at least the part of His plan I can see.

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Waiting for Morning

I often hear people say something like, “Joy is eternal. You can’t always be happy but you can always have joy.”

Lately, I feel the opposite. I can laugh with family and friends, smile to greet someone I know, enjoy a dinner out or a walk through my garden. But those happy moments drift unsupported over a dark abyss. I have no joy.

I want to believe God when He says Joy comes in the morning but there is no joy in this mourning. In this mourning, emptiness reigns, like a void that devours light and robs breath from your lungs.

Even in the midst of blessings, of sunshine and daisies and ice cream at the farm and family movies and just being an American with clean water and shelter and food in the pantry, I can be happy – grateful even – but I have no joy.

Does this make me a bad Christian? Is my faith too small? Am I far from God?

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