Thursday, March 31, 2011

According to Plan

Heidi's Story

Hello, my name is Heidi, and I'm a planner.

I love sitting down to make a list of any sort - as well as setting goals based on dreams that I have and deciding the best course of action to achieve them. 

Since I was a child growing up in Iowa, I've found distinct pleasure in planning activities and games for my friends and me. Birthdays and holidays were always a treat for me, not only for the event itself, but for the fun planning involved! This also probably has something to do with my choosing to become a professional organizer, a profession which has plenty of planning charms of it's own. :)

I can honestly say that the Lord has been consistently raising the bar in my life in how I view goals and plans, since I dedicated my life to Him back in Jr. High and chose Proverbs 3:5-6 as my life verse.
I was content to divert from my planned career path in the entertainment industry upon meeting my future husband in my last year of college.  He had a plan for his future that I was completely happy to align myself with, and I then had a wedding, a marriage and a whole new LIFE to plan for! 

The first few years of our marriage went pretty much "according to plan" aside from the first few challenging jobs I held. No worry! On to the next item on the list of continuing hubby's education!

Through the pursuit of his masters degree (in Colorado), I weathered our first really big "change of plan" pretty gracefully.  The career path he first had in mind had now morphed into something different that would require even more education.  I was fully supportive of him pursuing this goal.  After all, it was just another item on a new list to "check off" before *real life* could really begin, right?

It was also about this time that our first baby entered the picture. 
I quickly learned that with these little people, things rarely (if ever) go according to plan! :)

My resolve to "trust in the Lord" was tested significantly  as we moved to another new city and state with a newborn.  He was so faithful to us in  providing a home and a wonderful church family and friends.

Upon completing the P.h.D,  with yet another baby added to our crew, we were in hopeful planning mode again. However, with the current state of the economy causing teaching positions to be very scarce, Proverbs 16:9 was also echoing in my mind;
We moved to Minneapolis this past August on a huge act of faith - hoping to find full-time employment and finally feel settled somewhere. Once again, we found a wonderful church family and a lovely (albiet still temporary) house to rent.

After 10 years of marriage we're still waiting and wondering exactly what our next step will be. It's a tough position to be in, especially when I see so many of my peers in a seemingly well established state of living.  I think we all long to be "comfortable" and want a place to call "home" feel secure financially... to be able to make big plans and goals for our life and feel like we can pursue them.

 I'm learning I must choose daily to surrender all my dreams, goals and plans, no matter how lofty or basic. I am recognizing my hopes are only truly fulfilled in the Lord and what HE has planned in order to refine me more into his image in this earthly life.

"...Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well."
-Matthew 6:33-
 I'm also learning that no matter where we eventually call "home," it will really always be temporary...
"We are all exiles, always longing for home. We are always traveling, never arriving. The houses and families we actually inhabit are only inns along the way, but they aren’t home."
Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God


 "In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps."

"Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight."

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

(Not) Sex in the City

Hello Hope Women,

I wasn’t going to title this topic Sex in the City, because I thought that would just be a little too lame.  So, I thought I would title it, “Please read this short article from Naty about Sex…it’s really important.” But then, that just sounded more lame. So, I went with “(Not) Sex in the City,” because I thought that would make you all want to read it more.

The Song of Solomon sermon series has created a lot of opportunities for discussion, and the recent miniseries on false intimacy has brought forward even more.  It seems that you all have a lot of thoughts and feelings about what is being said on Sunday mornings and how it impacts your lives.  I want to encourage all of you to keep talking!

It is vital that we keep these topics out in the light of day with one another.  The problem of false intimacy affects each and every one of us on a regular basis to some degree or another. You can blame it on our sin nature or our overly sexualized culture, but whatever way you look at it, this is a problem for us. 

Unfortunately, this has become an area of sin that many people feel they need to hide from the Christian women around them.  If we are honest with ourselves, then we know this is happening at Hope. I want you all to know one thing: you are not alone in your struggle…there are other, actual women at Hope Community Church struggling with the same thing you are.  

The Bible tells us that all sin is a problem.  No sins, including sexual sin and false intimacy, are greater than the other.  However, this type of struggle is different.  It can be easier to cover up and harder to confess. It can lead us to a dark, shameful place where we, as women, try to hide.  

But remember, in order to find true fullness of life in Christ, we can’t just discuss and seek out help for our pretty sin, or our Christian-culturally-appropriate sin, or our sin that might just make us more charming and personable. We have to get honest and real with each other.  It is good to talk with the trusted people in our lives.  It is good to be honest about our struggles and allow people to come alongside us and remind us of the power of the gospel in our lives.

As a closing thought…Remember that your struggle, whatever it may be, does not define you as a woman in Christ.

But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.
Romans 6:17-18

The gospel is big enough for all of our sin and struggles.  As Steve likes to say, the ground is level at the foot of the cross.

There are women on our staff team who have been through your struggle.  Yes, I am talking about the sins (including those you struggle with) we are addressing in this sermon series.  We have found redemption in Christ through the power of the gospel and  healing by coming alongside one another in the light and truth of that same gospel. Contact me at Hope and I will help you get connected to real women at Hope who can encourage you in this fight.


Friday, March 25, 2011

A Season in Pain: UPDATE

Jill's Update

Jill’s original story, A Season of Pain, was posted on on November 10, 2010. If you haven’t had a chance to read it, please do so. It is an amazing story of God’s goodness and faithfulness in the midst pain and suffering. Jill took some time to update our blog readers on how her story has continued since her original post.

Our Question: If you could add on to your story now, what would you write?

Jill’s Answer: I think the most important part of my blog post – or at least the part that I wanted to communicate the most – is that God is still God even when we hurt. He is still perfect, He is still loving, He is still faithful, and He absolutely can be trusted. It is so hard to remember that when we are in the midst of trial or severe pain, but we must. Nothing, NOTHING can ever separate us from the love of Christ. “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8: 38-39).

Q: What do you think would be valuable for the readers to hear about your story since your blog post appeared?

A: I have come to realize that there is joy in the midst of pain. There is something really special about needing God just so you could get through each and every minute of every day. I longed for Heaven, I longed for Jesus, and He met me every time I cried out for Him. I truly felt Him carry me at times. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul said: “That is why for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Q: How has posting this blog benefited you?

A: The greatest blessing is getting to know other women at HCC who are struggling or have struggled with chronic pain. Chronic pain is often hidden, meaning even though you are struggling with it daily, most people can’t tell you are hurting from the outside. So it has been an honor to come alongside other women and hear their stories. They have been a huge encouragement to me.

Q: What challenges have arisen since your story was posted?

A: Mostly it is the challenges that come with living a pain-less life. I can easily find my need for God slipping at times. When pain is not staring me in the face each moment, I forget to call out to God. Even though I know I still need Him every day just as much as I did when I had chronic pain, it’s easier to think I can do things on my own when I am feeling good. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit reminds me often that I apart from Christ, I can do nothing.

Q: What joys have arisen?

A: I was blessed by each woman who commented on my blog post, and each new relationship that has formed. And I continue to be blessed by each woman who shares her story on the blog. We are a community of beautiful, broken women who need God and need each other. How great is that?!!

Q: What steps have you taken in the process of raising the bar?

A: Biggest step: I am reading the Word again! Last year, I was so dizzy most of the time that I couldn’t physically read. I could listen to the Word online or have someone read it to me, but I really missed quietly reading my Bible and soaking in each word. So that has been a huge blessing. Step #2: I am trying to remove pride from my life and recognize my HUGE need for Him. Even while I feel physically healthy right now, I am learning how to pray in each moment, and be just as dependent on Him as when I was sick.

Q: What’s next?

A: God hasn’t told me that yet, so we’ll see! God has not promised any of us a life of health, wealth or prosperity. In fact, He tells us just the opposite: “In this world you WILL have trouble” (John 16:33). At any moment I could go back into a season of pain. So for now, while I am healthy, I want to use this time to invest in Jesus, which is the greatest way to prepare me for whatever lies ahead.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Stepping up to the plate

Amber's Story

I really like the Minnesota Twins. It is probably one of the first things I would share about myself upon meeting you. However, I haven’t always been such a huge baseball fan. There was a time when I went to a game in sixth grade and thought it was boring. My interest in the Twins and baseball has grown over the last few years primarily because of two things: attending more games, and reading—blogs about the Twins, sports articles, and even a blog written by a player’s brother. Through these things my knowledge of the Twins and love for baseball has grown.

So how do the Twins relate with how I am “raising the bar”? Well, one area of my life in which I am raising the bar is spending time in the Word and working to increase my scriptural knowledge. I was raised going to a Christian school, attended Sunday school and worked at a church camp, so you would think that this would come naturally by now. The fact is, it doesn’t. Just like staying up on the batting order, I need to spend time in the Bible. Just like spending time going to games and talking with friends about the upcoming season, I need to surround myself with others who are also engaging in Scripture and fellowship.

This fall God once again called me to co-lead a large-group women’s Bible study at Hope. This helped me to focus on studying the Bible and devoting time to this every day (which I have not been so great about in the past). There is a reason for biblical study, which Paul reminds us of in Ephesians 6:13-17:

“Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”

In this passage, God calls the Bible the sword of the Spirit. By knowing what is written in Scripture, we are better equipped to handle life’s challenges and take a stand against sin. This is a great reminder of why we are called to study God’s word.

I have seen God teach me many new things from spending time studying the Bible. I have found myself wanting to know more, and reading even one passage can change my perspective on the day. I have a collection of verses written on note cards, and last summer when my job didn’t challenge me as much as I needed it to, a verse from I Thessalonians came to my mind many times: “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Memorizing one verse brought me great peace.

Just as Barnabas was an encouragement to Paul, I am blessed to have many people who want to come alongside and encourage me in this journey. My small group has really been looking at Hebrews 3:13 and what it means to “encourage each other daily.” I am reminded that encouragement comes from sharing—and more specifically from sharing what we are learning. The women’s Beth Moore study has been such an encouragement for me to share what I am learning and hear what others are learning. This is when we can really see how God is working.

As I think about raising the bar, I see that this can be an ongoing part of my life, and that there will always be areas where I am lacking and need to continue to persevere. It’s easy to brush off studying the Scripture because we are tired or don’t have the extra hour in our day--I know I am quick to make excuses. To fully know the power and love of God we actually have to know what his Word says. God doesn’t just give us nine innings to learn everything about him but he gives many opportunities to continually seek Him. It is just a matter of stepping up to the plate and taking advantage of those opportunities.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Loving, Trusting and Hope(ing)

Michelle's Story

Like so many of you, I have found encouragement in the testimonies from other Hope women here on the blog. It is wonderful to read about God's work in your lives and to learn from you. In my own life, I have had very little faith-based encouragement, and so I can't tell you what a joy it has been to be a part of Hope where community is a central part of our response to God.

My story begins with a baptism. I was baptized as an infant. I attended a Christian elementary school. I grew up in an area of Michigan known as the “Bible belt.” Surely, Jesus was not foreign to me – far from it. I know all of the classic stories about Jonah, Moses and the Good Samaritan, and I can sing my fair share of good ol' fashioned hymns.

Gospel, the Bible, God… these are not things we talked about at home. These topics were reserved for church, for me as a listener. As you can imagine, this left a lot of room for self-contemplation.

My first memory of questioning my own beliefs is when I was about eight or nine. My older brother passed away when I was seven years old, and for a few years after that I was afraid that I too would fall asleep and never wake up again. One night, I snuck out of my bedroom and into the living room where my parents were watching TV. Very cautiously, I explained that I couldn’t sleep and asked my parents if heaven was real. If I died, would I go there? It was then that my father looked at me very seriously and said, “Believing in God is not something we can decide for you. That is something you will have to decide for yourself.”

This may have been blunt for an eight-year-old girl, but it worked in this case. I chose to believe. Except, at that time, believing did not include trust. I believed in God’s existence, but for many years I relied on myself to nurse an aching heart, despite the fact that my favorite verse in the Bible is Proverbs 3:5-6: "Trust in the LORD with all your heart. Lean not on your own understanding, but in all your ways acknowledge HIM, for he will make your paths straight." God has kept these words on my mind since Sunday school class back in the mid-'90s, but until recently my mind didn't fully grasp their meaning.

My freshman year of high school, my parents filed for divorce. This event was the first domino in a series that has turned my life story into something resembling a Lifetime original movie. It is by the mercy of God that my path thus far has been solely one of empathy, heartbreak and sorrow for my family, and I have not been alone:

Joshua 1:9 “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.”

As the dominoes continued to fall around me, God gave me a mighty anchor to keep me grounded: My Aunt Sue. She had no daughters of her own and for some reason (perhaps because my mother had daughters to spare), this Aunt favored me and took me under her wing.

Aunt Sue had a reputation for her practicality. At wedding showers, I am told, she would bring a set of tools for the bridegroom. She was a public advocate for people with disabilities and her testimony helped many people. So when this wise, sensible aunt spoke to me fearlessly of her trust in God and her faith in His love for all people, it was difficult not to listen. Her steadfast devotion inspired me to seek God in a new way, to learn about Him and to build a relationship with Him. This burst of inspiration lasted for maybe a year or so toward the end of high school.

On a Thursday morning my freshman year of college, everything changed. It was unusual for the phone in my dorm room to ring, much less in the early hours of the morning. When I picked up the call and heard my mom’s voice on the other end of the receiver, my stomach plummeted. My mom never called me. The pit in my stomach grew deeper as I listened. With a strained voice, my mom told me there had been an accident. The van my aunt had been driving home over Easter weekend had crossed over a median on the highway. Just a few exits from home, it had collided head-on with another vehicle, and both drivers were killed. My aunt Sue, my anchor, was gone.

During the next four years I attended church intermittently, and this again became the extent of my relationship with God. None of my friends believed in God, or anything at all really, and so it became acceptable for me to once again rely on my feeble human strength to pull me along in life. Mostly, I allowed work to consume me.

Throughout college I worked full time while balancing a full credit load so that I could graduate in four years with minimal debt – the ultimate goal. When I wasn’t working or attending class, I was choreographing routines for my younger sister’s school performances or coaching colorguard for underprivileged teens at an urban high school. To the untrained eye, I represented a model twenty-something.

A busy schedule became my priority and my excuse. I couldn’t always attend church because my employers would not give me Sundays off. Opening a Bible took too much time away from studying. Gospel friends seemed like a nice idea, but what was wrong with the old friends? Five years ago I would have told you nothing was wrong with these friends, and that would have been true, but what is more true is that Gospel Friends are an integral part of GOD's plan for us:

Hebrews 2:13 "Encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness."

Move a few years down the timeline and it is 2009, and I’m living in Minneapolis where my husband and I have just discovered this great little church called Hope. This is the church that we were looking for. The term "hunting" for a church seems wrong, because every church that we attended since moving to Minneapolis has taught us something, and we attended MANY churches. If it has "wood" in the name we went there. We didn't just want a church where we would learn something, though. What we sought was community. I don't want to speak on David's behalf, but for someone like me who is just beginning to form her own beliefs and dig into what it really means to be a Christian, what it really means to know the Gospel, having a community is a vital first step. This is difficult to say for someone who is by all of society's "rules" an adult, but I need people in my life who will set good examples for me. I need people who will encourage me, challenge me, preach to me and love me through it all.

For me, “raising the bar” has meant making a dedicated effort to open my life up to God, to allow Him to love me and to allow myself to trust Him. Being a part of a weekly Small Group has helped so much with that. This wonderful group of Gospel Friends that I meet with each week represents some of the kindest, most caring people you will ever meet. Every day I am thankful God has put them in my life. For someone who has for so long practiced the art of self-reliance, it is a constant struggle to lay down my burdens, but that is what we are asked to do and each week on Monday night I am reminded of that!

Attending Hope Community Church for these past two years has blessed me with more gospel friends than a girl could ever hope for (via a not-so-small small group); and in Redemption Group, I felt comfortable opening up about the anger and frustration I have felt when my love for my family seems to go unreciprocated. In Redemption Group, God re-revealed his love for me through a host of testimonies and a long list of verses, including Isaiah 41:10:

“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”

For someone who has for so long practiced the art of self-reliance, it is a constant struggle to lay down my burdens. But that is what we are asked to do! And it should overwhelm our hearts with joy that in spite of our sinful nature, God loves us SO MUCH:

Romans 5:8 “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Friday, March 4, 2011

Falling in Love with Jesus, One Bite at a Time

Lizzie's Story

At the beginning of this past summer, I decided that I had four goals for the near future:

1. Clean/organize my room. What a mess!

2. Love God more.

3. Lose weight.

4. Get a boyfriend.

I was even able to admit to myself, that while I knew that God should be first, honestly, that’s the order that they needed to be accomplished in. Thankfully, God had other plans. In His grace, drawing me back into a loving relationship with Himself was at the top of His “to-do” list. But, He wasn’t going to stop there either. In His strength, and by His power alone, He has led me on a journey these past six months of Raising the Bar by surrendering to Him and allowing Him to cleanse my heart from idolizing food.

In high school, I really enjoyed running cross-country and track. These activities provided a healthy outlet for my academic stress, as well as keeping me “in shape.” I proceeded to attend a very rigorous college, and my perfectionist attitude led me to live in almost constant stress, anxiety and fear. After running at the collegiate level my freshmen fall, I decided that training and competing were eating up too much of my time, and I needed more time to focus on my studies. So, I began my freshman winter term as a stressed-out college student, whose previous outlet for stress was no more.

It was in this season of my life when overeating became a stronghold for me. Over the next three years, I trained my body to turn to food in times of stress, for example when writing a paper. Instead of coming before God with my underlying anxiety, I would attempt to mask over the pit in my stomach by overeating.

Flash forward and it’s the beginning of last summer. I had just graduated from college, and therefore, no longer had any stress, so I should be able to easily shed all my excess stress weight, right? Wrong. Despite my best efforts at will power and exercise, I continued to overeat all throughout last summer, turning to food instead of God to comfort and calm me. It only added to my shame that I work at Feed My Starving Children! Here I was, telling people about God’s hungry children, and yet, I couldn’t break the addictive power of food in my own life. What a hypocrite! I frequently prayed that God would give me self-control and free me from gluttony, but it wasn’t until I heard a song by Jason Gray that anything in my heart began to change: “[It’s gotta be] more like falling in love, than something to believe in. More like losing my heart, than giving my allegiance.”

The song is “More Like Falling in Love,” and in it, Jason talks about how legalism in his relationship with God won’t cut it. The last line of the bridge is, “Falling in love with Jesus brought the change in me,” and when I heard it, I realized my loving Father was calling me to surrender all of my attempts at behavior modification and to allow true, passionate love for His Son to bring about change in my eating habits. A picture that He gave me shortly thereafter was of me, sitting at a table, eating too much, and Jesus sitting next to me, brokenhearted. In this moment, I realized the depth of the sadness Jesus, the lover of my soul, experiences when He sees me turn to food rather than to Him for true healing.

In September of 2010, God gave me the grace to share my struggles with food, first with a woman on Hope’s prayer team, and then, with the women in my small group. What freedom came from bringing this area of sin into the light! By being authentic with my sisters in Jesus, and sharing this burden that had been on my heart for so long, God began the process of setting me free and giving me the power to Raise the Bar! Two passages of His Word that have been helpful in this season of my life are:

“‘Everything is permissible for me’―but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is permissible for me’―but I will not be mastered by anything… Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, Who is in you, Whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.” --1 Corinthians 6:12, 19-20

“For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope―the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for Himself a people that are His very own, eager to do what is good.” --Titus 2:11-14

As Pastor Steve has preached, behavior modification won’t get rid of the pervasive nature of sin in our lives. Until I surrendered to the power of the Holy Spirit, and recognized that He is the only One able to free me from the mastery of sin, my attempts at weight loss were in vain.

It’s now halfway through February of 2011, and I’m thankful to say that, by God’s grace, I’m within striking distance of a healthy weight! The journey over these past six months has not been easy, or without setback. Especially in the first few months, it was very difficult to tell myself that, though my stomach was grumbling, my body did not truly need more fuel. I had to trust, and completely rely on God for strength in these times, that He was enough for me and that He would sustain me as I was hungry. I had to surrender to God the fear that if I began to eat less, I would become a not-so-nice person, and allow Him to refine me and hold my tongue, especially when I’m really hungry!

More recently, Raising the Bar in this area of my life has meant turning to Jesus instead of a medium, dark chocolate, hot chocolate. I have been sick a lot this winter, and the first thing that comes to mind to ease this pain is the aforementioned hot beverage. Just last week, I was humbled when Jesus gently reminded me, that hot chocolate was not going to get me through the headache-filled work day, but rather, only abiding in His strength would. Continuing to Raise the Bar in this area of my life means pursuing God for healing and rest, instead of relying on material things that can only attempt to fill that need; it means worshipping my Creator, not created things (Romans 1:25).

From the difficulties and struggles of these past six months, shine beautiful - and more frequent - moments of surrender in my walk with Jesus. Through them, He has brought so much healing into my life! I no longer look at myself in the mirror with shame and self-loathing, but rather, rejoice in how my loving Father has made me fearfully and wonderfully (Psalm 139:14)! Additionally, through the humbling discipline of prayer and fasting, my Father has deepened my compassion for His children around the world who go without food daily. Most of all, I am thankful that as I continue in obedience in Raising the Bar, I have a testimony to share of Jesus’ transformative power when we allow Him to be the love of our lives!

Thank you for allowing me to bear witness to God’s work in my life, and to close, here is a portion of another song by Jason Gray, “I am New,” that has ministered to me in this season:

“Too long have I lived in the shadows of shame, believing that there was no way I could change. But the one who is making everything new, doesn't see me the way that I do, He doesn't see me the way that I do. I am not who I was, I am being remade, I am new. Dead to the old man, I'm coming alive, I am new. Forgiven, beloved, hidden in Christ, made in the image of the Giver of Life. Righteous and holy, reborn and remade, accepted an