Friday, July 17, 2015

Boundaries, trials, and Moses moments.


Matthew 10: 37 He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. 38"And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. 39"He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it.

When I told God he could have my life, He took me seriously. He took my prayer much more seriously than I did at the time. When I made that prayer, I was in a horrible, hellacious tormenting pit of addiction and emotional turmoil  that I saw no way out of, and I was so desperate for the agony to end that I finally waived my white flag to God. It was a prayer of surrender, a last ditch effort to save my life after dozens of rehabs, psychiatrists, help from friends and family, willpower, consequences, and therapy had failed. Being in such a state of desperation was the ONLY reason that I even entertained the idea of crying out to God, because I figured he wanted nothing to do with me. It was, honestly, my last option before I took my life. I remember very vividly thinking "I'm not sure if this will work, because I am not good enough for God to possibly want anything to do with, but I am going to try. I will give it a few days, and if nothing changes, I am going to drink myself into a painless stupor and go lay down on the train tracks. What does it matter if I am dead three days from now or dead today? Maybe, just maybe, this God thing is real. I have to at least try, so I can kill myself with a good conscience knowing that I TRULY had no other options left. That way, if there is a hell, maybe God will have mercy on me because he knows I exhausted all my options" (oh, the craziness of an addicts' brain!)

I had enough faith that maybe he could save me from killing myself, and maybe get my addiction down to a tolerable, sane level of usage (I couldn't imagine being completely clean then!) but that was about as far as my expectations went. Needless to say, I didn't kill myself (otherwise the fact that I am  writing this blog right now is really creepy!) and day by day as God kept me, I started to have a faint hope that one day he would be able to take my addiction away for good, and if that happened, it would be miraculous.  If I got REALLY lucky (which I wasn't even able fathom until I was saved and sober for years and He had started to clean up a lot of my spiritual garbage) maybe one day He would grow me into being semi- normal. Once he took away my paralyzing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (which put me into horrible anxiety in social situations) from finding my boyfriend hanging from the rafter in our basement, and my ability to speak to people returned (which took about 8 months),  I started to have a glimmer of hope of possibly being semi-functional again. Maybe one day I would have the ability to almost fit in with "normal" people- or at least be able to get along with the rest of society without sticking out. Maybe one day I would be able to have a 9 to 5 job, the house with the white picket fence, a couple of kids, a car payment- you know normal, boring stuff. Things that come to people's minds when they think of the American life. Things you see on sitcoms. Things that are instilled in us from a very young age by society to want. Things that seem so impossible and foreign to addicts, who have only known lives of chaos, instability, heartache, and loss. If he could do that with messed up me, it would be a miracle. That's what I thought happened to people when they got saved and God refined them- unless you were really special like Billy Grahm or C.S. Lewis or those other Super Christians. Honestly the thought never even crossed my mind that he would use me in ministry. I definitely wasn't a super Christian. I definitely wasn't special, and I was nowhere near being even semi-normal. I was so screwed up, so different from every other Christian and "church person" that I had known, that it never dawned on me that he would ever actually WANT use me for anything in ministry. And honestly, if the thought had dawned on me then, it probably would have been enough to scare me into not praying at all (which is why, I have learned, God only shows you little pieces of the puzzle at the time. He doesn't want us getting overwhelmed and freaking out!)

Fast forward seven years- and, obviously, I was proven wrong. I have dedicated my life to befriending and ministering to drug addicts for all of those seven years except for a year long "break" period of transition. I realize now that when I said that prayer of desperation and gave God my life, my life was no longer my own- but His- and I lost my ability to choose what to do with it. I mean, technically I CAN choose what I do with my life- I have free will- but I have learned that being in the will of God and being obedient to what he is telling you to do is always the best option. It always works out for my best in the end. I have come to terms with the fact that this is my call in life (at least for the moment), and I am very grateful to be used by God. Helping others who struggle with the same issues I used to (and some that I continue to struggle with) helps me see that all of those years in addiction weren't wasted, but training for what I am currently doing. I was brought through it so I could let others know that there was a way out for them too. I feel greatly humbled and honored to be entrusted with such a task by God. I know it's what I am supposed to be doing with my life. But that's not to say that it's always painless and easy going. The problem comes when my flesh wants to do the total opposite of what God wants me to do. Drug addicts- by their very nature- are extremely selfish. They think of themselves and no one else. And it takes a LONG time to get out of that mind set- long after that drugs have stopped. Which can make being obedient hard. To submit to God's will when it goes against all of my natural desires does not come naturally. There is a lot of sacrifice, obedience, self-denial, and self control that is required, and it is by no means easy. It truly is a process of dying daily, and crucifying the flesh- which feels just about as fun as it sounds. It can be really, really hard. Sometimes my flesh SCREAMS for me to be able to  do my own thing, and, if I'm not careful, my flesh can get louder than God's voice. That's when I'm in trouble.

 My husband and I  have undergone tremendous testing and trials in the past few weeks. We have had pretty, shiny, materialistic things put in our faces that have tried to entice us away from ministry- things that my flesh wants. Things that I tried justifying God would want us to have. Things that we deserve. Things that normal people have. My flesh wanted to say yes, to take the shiny thing, but my spirit knew different. In reality, we deserve absolutely nothing, and we still are nowhere near normal- and probably never will be. My mind tried to justify why God would want us to have this nice, shiny thing. My flesh tried to come up with a compromise as to how we could take this shiny thing and still do what we are called to do- when, in actuality, it would have been devastating to CROSSroads- which we know for a fact is God ordained. We struggled for days with what to do- praying hour upon hour for God to reveal his will, and for him to absolutely close the door if it was not what the path we were to take. This was either a major blessing or a huge distraction sent to take our focus off of what we were really supposed to be doing. If we chose to take this shiny thing and we were doing it out of our flesh and not because God told us to, there would have been disastrous consequences not only for us, but for others as well.  Not only would we have been out of the will of God, but the decision would have affected other people's spiritual walks as well. After a few days, God started to show us that it was not His will at all, but a distraction. Something sent to divide our ministry. Something to get us out of here, because the gospel is being preached to drug addicts and people are being saved. Satan is scandalous. He will bless you too if you let him.

In retrospect, that test actually wasn't too hard after a few days, because we clearly heard God on what we were supposed to do. He gave us the answer loud and clear. The harder trials have been the ones in the past few weeks where God was- and is- still quiet. Situations where there is no clear answer. No black and white, right or wrong. Where either way could be God's will, and we are left desperately seeking the discernment to figure it out. One of these "quiet" trials I have been dealing with popped up after something happened in church Sunday which led me to not be able to hear the message that I desperately needed after a chaotic week of spiritual and emotional draining trials. Being denied the ability to hear the message showed me just how much I needed it, and brought up a lot of questions in regards as to when to draw boundaries on ministry. When,  and how, is it okay put myself and my spirituality first? Is it ever ok to put myself as top priority? To want to set my own itinerary for the day, have an hour at church to listen to an uninterrupted sermon,  have a day without ministry, or to have a chance to be taught to instead of teaching in order to recuperate from what I am pouring out to other people and spiritually feed myself? Or does it go against the very thing God wants me to do? Is that mindset selfish? Or is it necessary to having a healthy spiritual (and leadership) life?

At first, that seems like an easy answer. Of course, take time for yourself, talks about taking a Sabbath, you can't take care of others if you can't take care of yourself, if you burn out now you'll be no good to anyone- take time for yourself. That's all fine and good, and I wish it were that easy, but what about when in order to do that, it means denying help to the very people that God sent to me? What is more important to God? My rest and being spiritually healthy, or helping those in need? Both seem good, and both seem of good- but which is GOD?

If only it were that easy. The type of ministry that we are in doesn't have office hours or vacation days or scheduled appointments. It is SO HARD to keep boundaries- to separate our lives from the ministry. We are on the frontline of a war, and as well all know- war is unpredictable. When soldiers are called into battle, they go- regardless of what is going on at their life in the moment. That's how they're trained. And sometimes, if you don't deploy your weapons at the exact second that you need to, the chance never comes again, and the consequences can be fatal. That's how we have been trained. When there is a need, we go. It's hard to tell a parent that calls you at 2 AM sobbing that their child just overdosed on heroin to call back in the morning or that we will make an appointment to fit them into our schedules. It's hard to keep boundaries when a drug addict you have been witnessing to for months finally has a moment of clarity and wants to make the 1 1/2 hour drive detox with you and accept Jesus- and you know that if you don't act  now, by the morning they will be high again- and they decide this in the middle of your "ministry free family day" (ha! What's that?). These are life and death decisions which honestly, I don't think anyone who has a heart for addicts can walk away from. How do you put boundaries on that? How do you say, "good lucky- let me pray for you- but I'm busy right now- hopefully you can stay alive until I have the time in my schedule to meet you?"

Proverbs 3:27 says: "Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it. Do not say to your neighbor, “Go, and come again, tomorrow I will give it”—when you have it with you." It tells us not to turn people away, because tomorrow may be to late. 

I get that, I do. In fact, I have been living my life by that motto for the past seven years. When God brings someone to me, I consider it a divine appointment, and it takes priority. Yes, sometimes it's rough and it can be really inconvenient, but the Holy Spirit has equipped me to do it and to live my life with some degree of normalcy in the mist of chaos. In fact, I believe God put me in the ministry because he knows deep down that I need chaos to feel normal. My entire life has been chaos, and if it were to all go away, I'm not sure what I would do. I'm sure I would be really, really bored. SO, he allows me to keep chaos in my life, except now (for the most part!) it's other people's chaos instead of my own. I have looked at our ability to have the strength to press through this ministry as something that glorifies God, because our ability comes from Him and Him alone. The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. So often, we have to take on double shifts. God says that He wants us ALL in. In the book of Revelation, it talks about how he will spew us out of his mouth if we are lukewarm rather than hot or cold. I go our of my way to demonstrate that I am hot. I have never been the kind of person that halfway does anything. I am either all the way in or all the way out. There is no middle with me. I am an extremist to the fullest.

I also know, however, that ministry burnout is a very real thing. I know that if I can't take care of myself spiritually, I will eventually be of no benefit to anyone. Not to myself, not to my husband, to my children, or to the people I am trying to help. I have gone through it before. That's what that "year long transition" period was. I was exhausted. It took me an entire year of being ministry free to recuperate. Something happened this week- one of my silent trials- that heeded as a huge warning to me that I would be headed the same way soon if something doesn't change. It was something that really made me look at my life, the ministry, my spiritual condition, and what realistic sustainability looks like. To  pour out to others constantly and never get spiritually fed myself will eventually result in a spiritual death sentence- I will starve to death. I absolutely have to make time for myself to read my bible, have a good prayer life, make fasting at least a twice monthly priority, and attend church and bible study where I'm NOT teaching but instead can hear the message for myself. Jesus warns of it in the bible, as seen in Luke 10:38 where he is visiting Martha and Mary, two sisters who opened their home to him. Mary sat at Jesus' feet listening to him speak, while Martha was running herself ragged preparing for the gathering in her home. Martha became angry and asked "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!" To which Jesus replied: "Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."

Jesus is very clearly stating that doing "work" for the kingdom at the cost of a relationship with him is not what is best. To do God's work, without having enough time to have your own relationship with him, was not what God intended. God knows that we need rest, and to abide in Him and Him alone. In  Mark 6:31, he tells the disciples to:“ Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. They were close to burnout. He knew if they didn't rest, they would no longer be operating by leading of the Holy Spirit, but out of their own flesh and exhaustion. Not only that, but spiritual exhaustion leaves us vulnerable to attacks. When we're weak, it's hard to fight back. And it's definitely hard to be a soldier. In 1 Kings 19, Elijah was so warn out and exhausted that he asked God to let him die. Instead, God commanded him to rest, and sent an angel to give him food to eat in order to gain his strength for the task that was ahead of him. The bible makes it pretty clear that without spiritual rest, we are unusable. Not only that, but it affects our attitudes to the point that we get REALLY grumpy. Elijah wasn't the only person in the bible that was worn out to the point of wanting death. Check out what Moses said to God after dealing with the Israelites in the desert by himself:

Numbers Chapter 11:
11 He asked the Lord, “Why have you brought this trouble on your servant? What have I done to displease you that you put the burden of all these people on me? 12 Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? Why do you tell me to carry them in my arms, as a nurse carries an infant, to the land you promised on oath to their ancestors? 13 Where can I get meat for all these people? They keep wailing to me, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ 14 I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me. 15 If this is how you are going to treat me, please go ahead and kill me—if I have found favor in your eyes—and do not let me face my own ruin.”

Now, I am not at that point right now, but I have been VERY close numerous times in ministry. Don't get me wrong- I absolutely love my ministry, and the people that we work with have become some of the biggest blessings in my life. It's amazing and honoring to have a front row seat to see God's transformative power at work. But, it can get so overwhelming, that you really do want to yell out to God to give you a break! I look at to these scriptures as warnings. As a warning to not let myself ever get there. I never want to feel so overwhelmed by ministry that I would rather DIE than continue on! (As a side note- I am the first to admit that I can be a little overdramatic- but that is over the top even for me!) I never want to be so worn out that I am running on spiritual fumes. God desires a relationship with me, not just the people he has put in front of me to help. But sometimes it is just so hard to give myself permission to do that. I am so grateful for what God saved me from, that I cannot in good conscience tell someone that I don't have time to help them. What if the ministry that I came out of in Milwaukee would have said that to me? If they would have told me to come back tomorrow during business hours, I would probably be dead right now. I was taught that you never turn anyone away, because you never know when God will work with someone. Who am I to make that call? Who am I to question God's timing?  Philippians 2:3 says to Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. I'm to value others, and their needs, above my own. I try to live that way. But sometimes my flesh just screams BUT WHAT ABOUT ME!!!???!!! God, I will be obedient up until the point I draw the line! I know when enough is enough! Sometimes, I get awfully close to feeling like Moses and Elijah! It is such a war- between flesh and spirit, selfishness and selflessness. Between believing that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me, and getting down on my knees begging for Him to send reinforcements!
I am by no means special. I can guarantee beyond a shadow of a doubt that every pastor and frontline minister feels like the same way at least occasionally. It's hard when the lines get blurred, when you have a ministry that is 24 hours and all consuming, and everything is intertwined. When boundaries aren't realistically very enforceable, and its hard to distinguish your personal life from ministry because- well- ministry is your life.  It's hard to know when to say no when you see every person that God brings into your life as a divine appointment, and you know that you may never get the chance to witness to them again. Sometimes, it's hard to give yourself permission to put yourself first, because we know that we are nothing without God,  and to put ourselves and our needs first while people are dying in the streets of heroin overdoses right and left seems absurd. Is my "night off" that important? Should that really take precedence? We are grateful for what God brought us out of, and want the same for others. When we gave him our lives, we meant it. To complain that it's too hard and not going the way we wanted seems- well- selfish. He said to pick up our cross and follow him- regardless of what we have to give up to do it.

I have no concrete answers. I have been wrestling with this the entire time I have been a Christian. I can't tell you (or myself for that matter!) how to prioritize your ministry versus your own needs. I think situations change, seasons come and go, and different seasons require different priorities. Some seasons we will pour out so much that we feel like we have nothing left for ourselves. Other seasons, we will feel like we are absolutely useless to the kingdom of God because there is no one to pour out to, and we have all the time in the world to focus on ourselves and our needs. All I know is that God is there through it all, and he knows right where we are at. I have to trust that even if I am making the wrong decision and ministering when I should be resting or resting when I should be ministering- that as long as I seek his face and pray for him to guide me, that he will correct my course. I have to trust that he will give me the strength and endurance to press on in ministry even if I am close to burnout. And I have to trust that if I am supposed to be resting and focusing on my own spirituality, that he will give me a clear sign to do that. Sadly, though, I usually only heed those signs once I have already crashed and burned. When I am on the verge of turning into Moses, asking God to kill me because I can't take it anymore. I have noticed that when I get close to that point, God will FORCE me to stop. It will be either through circumstances that prevent me from doing ministry and force me to take the time to spend on myself (like being laid up in bed with a sickness or a broken ankle!), or through an ugliness that starts to creep into my attitude. That's my sign that I need to focus on God, because otherwise I will be working out of my flesh.

I also have to trust that if I really need to take the time to rest and invest in my spirituality and have "me time", that God will take care of the people that I am missing out on ministering to and can't help during that time. God is more than capable of keeping them, and if I am really meant to minister to them, he will bring them back. Taking a ministry break every so often is not only healthy, but mandatory.  It's very dangerous in ministry to start thinking that God needs you. He doesn't. He's God. It's important to remember that everything will not crumble if I'm not there, because I'm not the one holding it together in the first place. He is. Taking breaks and giving myself permission to focus on myself helps to remind me of that. I need to do the best that I can- all that I can- and leave the rest to God.

My prayer is to be able to live out my life in a missional way, without sacrificing my own relationship with God in the midst of it. He needs to be first priority, because if He's not, none of this matters anyway.  I am nothing without God- and I think sometimes he lets me fall flat on my face to remind me that I can't do anything in my own power. I pray that I never lose the heart to put others first, but at the same time realize that if I don't take care of myself, I will be no good to them. I pray for discernment as to when I should pour out and when I should rest, and that I am not too stubborn to heed which way the Holy Spirit is guiding me. I pray that God- and people- see my heart and realize my intentions even when I make the wrong choice. I pray that I die to myself everyday, and live out what God's will for my life. And most of all, I pray that God has grace on me in my Moses moments.