Category: church

a different way

photo by Jennifer Upton (
photo by Jennifer Upton (

When I was little my sister and I fought all of the time. One of us would eventually run and complain to mom. Her standard response was “Don’t tell me what she did. Tell me what you did. Tell me what you could have done better.” 

It’s a good step—wise, although not very therapeutic. The part I’ve learned to supplement with is called reflecting feeling. It’s the part that comes before correction. You feel really upset that your sister didn’t ask to borrow your toy and now it got broken. I’m so sorry that happened. It’s unjust and you feel angry…

As my super smart counselor friend has taught me, this practice builds connection. The individual with the hurt (big or small) feels seen and heard. And especially when you’re talking to littles it’s a crucial step in teaching them to express their emotions in hopes that they’ll grow up to be healthy, emoting adults. After the feelings are reflected, it opens us up to receive comfort because we know the person sees us and is with us in that moment. As someone who loves Jesus, I will talk about how he feels for me.

 “Jesus knows how you feel right now. He loves you so much and cares deeply that you are hurting. What do you think he’s telling you?”

“He feels sad that I feel sad. He’s hurting that I’m hurting.”

“What do you think he’s asking you to do right now?”

“I think he wants me to forgive my sister. Because it was an accident and I know she didn’t mean to.” (Just pretend that my six year old self was this rational.) And here we’ve come full circle—the desired result in a family is unity. And I’ve been brought back around, while still having my emotional needs met. My needs mattered. I was seen and heard. And then I was able to let them go because I do desire to love my sister.


I saw a twitter exchange a few days ago and it made me deeply sad. An individual declared something on twitter that he probably shouldn’t have—but it was a conviction of his and he felt the need to share it. I don’t agree with him. I think 140 characters is a sham way to share a conviction because people miss all the nuances and shading that went into said conviction. But what horrified me was the way others began to mock him and throw stones. It was not “all in good fun” as they proceeded to run him to the ground and scrape his skin off. Memes were made. It was an undignified response to a comment that should have been left to rot. 

Because here’s the deal—I believe that all parties involved love Jesus. I think we are all working out our salvation with fear and trembling and while there are some pretty sharp disagreements, I don’t think we have to stoop to the level of toddlers flinging mud. I have a problem with humor at the expense of someone else. We have to see the human dignity in each other—it’s all we have left in this cold, harsh world. I hate that people tweet asinine things with what seems a divisive heart to draw a line in the sand—reminding the world there’s an “us” and a “them.” But we are all made in the image of God and we can’t forget that.

These tweets happen. And I think it’s fair that they anger and hurt us, or hurt those we care about. And I think it’s fair to respond—but not in a mocking or patronizing way. We need to expand the dialogue—not join him/her in the mud. We’re trying to erase the line—not draw it deeper in the sand.

I think unity comes when we reflect feeling. When we say, “these words hurt,” and we sit in that hurt. Because we will hurt one another—it’s a harsh reality in this almost but not yet world. And we can ask Jesus how he feels about that hurt. Then we can lean deeply into the Holy Spirit and ask how we should respond in a way that “preserves the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Sometimes that does look like making a mess and knocking over tables. Sometimes it might look like speaking up for the marginalized, offering a different lens from which to view the gospel. Sometimes we’ll need to pick up a sword to attack the lie. But I think the further we can stay away from mocking one another, the more love we show one another even in our disagreements, the more the world will see Jesus’s fingerprints all over us. We won’t ever be “disagreement” free, but maybe we can be conflict free…maybe we can be gracious and loving towards one another, even when we don’t deserve it. Maybe the hope of the world isn’t that we all agree all of the time, but that there’s room for all of us with all of our different shapes, stories, and experiences to sit together and break bread at the table.

Maybe we can nod our heads to the God we see in each other instead of slaughtering each other.

(re)defining: church


This is part of a link-up with boots on the ground.

The past few years I have been experiencing church more in the in-between places. That realization came out of a time when we had friends over for dinner and somehow I felt moved in a direction towards God that I hadn’t experienced in awhile. It was messy and full of life happening around us. But it was a time I could point to and say, this is Church. (You can read about that experience here). I continue to find this to be true. I enjoy my times on Sunday when I am in a designated space participating in liturgy, but I experience church outside of these confines, too.

Art journaling, writing, or coffee dates with friends.

Dating my husband every other Tuesday.

Dinner with another married couple every few weeks.

Random conversations in the drop-off/pick-up line at school.

Going to a ballet when the world falls out from under your soul-mate/friend.

Small group Wednesday night where we gather to eat food and care for one another.

All of these spaces are church because I leave them changed. Because God uses these circumstances and people to move me closer to himself. It’s a more freeing way for me to experience church because it isn’t tied to a particular place and time–but it flows around me. Because I love Jesus, church has the potential to happen anywhere. I make my own sacred spaces, and even if they are only sacred for a moment, that is good and it’s enough.

I continue to find that there isn’t a right way or a wrong way to experience church. And I’ve even found that the more simple an experience, the more open I am to the Spirit’s gentle whisper. I’m not distracted by fanfare or too many people that can overwhelm his sweet voice. I think I got locked down into such a traditional sense of church for so many years that I missed the way the spirit of God moves.

I think church for me has become a “place” defined more by my experience than the external factors. I think we enjoy the external factors: the coffee, the food, the music, the conversation. But I think church happens when we are able to care for one another–whatever that looks like. I think we know when church happens because on a spiritual level our hearts will be moved with affection towards our Savior. In these spaces, we will speak words of kindness and light into each other as we work to heal the rough, worn, weary places in our hearts. Usually when I leave these sacred times, I feel euphoric. I used to crave the high I experienced from “going to church” with a really good sermon and where the music and words are well-crafted to call forth tears. But now find these things make me feel manipulated. It’s the quiet, gentle whisper I want to hear. I want to experience the mess, to wrestle with the what-ifs and the questions and the doubts.

And I think as I have redefined church, I also realize that I am carrying church with me. It’s on my back, in my hands and feet so when the world interacts with me, it gets to experience church. Same for you. We are giving church to the world. The place I go on Sunday ends every week with this blessing: now go and live the church. I feel like this definition allows us to experience the richness and depth and freedom that God wants for us as we interact with him, each other, and the world.

(re)learning: love

photo by Jennifer Upton
photo by Jennifer Upton

I think I love Jesus more than the Christians do. I let her words wash over me, listening as she shares her story. I mean, they’re awful. And she tells me about her sister–a Christian–who said hateful, horrible things to her daughter about her recent weight gain. She told me her sister judges and condemns those not like her. These are the kinds of stories over the last few years that have made me hesitant to claim the name Christian. I am one. But I feel more comfortable traveling in the darkness–not making waves. I might say I am a follower of Christ. But usually I just avoid any reference to my faith.

Because I understand her. I understand her disdain and her upset-ness with this sect that isolates and judges. Because I am upset with us too.

But it was not meant to be this way. When we were first given the name Christians, we were known for how we loved the fringes. We took in the ones rejected by society. We were known for our inclusivity. For caring for those who were not ours. Those who were orphaned, widowed, abandoned, abused, and called names. We loved the unlovely because we knew we were unlovely, too. How far we have fallen from our inheritance.

I read this in The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton yesterday, “I’m a good Christian woman, Reverend, I’m in church every Sunday, I do my bit for the fete and the Easter fund-rasier, but I just can’t [adopt my orphaned niece].” It’s a fictional story–but I winced as I read these words because I think this an accurate portrayal of what “Christian” means to many people today. We pay our dues, distance ourselves from the big bad sins (which we define) and then sit in our “holier than thou” seats and condemn this complex, beautiful/ugly world. But there’s so much more than that.

And I am so thankful for the many who are portraying such a different view of Christians. I am slowly becoming braver about identifying with them. The few are making me proud and standing in contrast to the many. There is hope and light.

So I want to share with you the Jesus I know.

The Jesus I know loved first. After God created the world and all it contains, he made man in his image. He wanted us. But in our creature-ness we thought we knew better than the Creator–we refused him. Like a child running through a busy intersection without a care in the world, God watched us fulfill our own destruction. He wept over it. He knew we desired to know first so he let us reach for and grasp that knowledge. BUT because he loves us, he intervened across time and space. First, he showed us how much we needed him. In the Old Testament he walks us through how clean, holy and pure he is. How separate and entirely other he is from us. He shows us our complete lack of making ourselves, now stained, clean again. Our human-ness separates us from him and we can’t overcome that.

And because he loves us, he doesn’t stop there. He doesn’t just teach us about our condition–he acts to change it. To change us into something other. One of my favorite verses in Scripture is when Paul teaches about how God did not expect us to grasp him so he came to us in our form. He wrapped himself in flesh, he touched us with his hands. He spoke, taught, ate, drank and loved us in very tangible ways. He broke bread with us in our fallen state and called us lovely. And then he made us lovely. He took upon himself our uncleanness, our human-ness, our sin. And he did what we couldn’t–he died without blemish but carried the full wrath of God so that we could be set free from our bodies of sin and death.

And then he left the grave, unlocking death so that it lost its power over us. He gave us the promise that if we cling to him, if we call on his name, then we, too, will live with him. He will abide in us and we will abide in him. He will be our comforter, counselor and friend. He will make the old things new. The wrong things right. Starting now.

I don’t believe people go to hell because of their sexual orientation (or whatever the hot topic sin issue of the day is) because all over Scripture there are a million things that Paul, the Old Testament prophets, James, and Peter all say separate us from God–insurmountable obstacles. And the only one who can change us from flesh and blood creatures is the Creator and Savior of the world when he gives us new hearts, when we believe that he can and will do that.

We stand on a precipice. We get to make a choice. And that choice affects our lives as we walk from here to eternity. We can choose to respond to unfamiliarity and the unknown with love. Or we can respond with hate.

This is what I believe. I believe that I struggle with drunkenness. I really like drinking alcohol. Especially in social settings. I get really stressed when I’m around a lot of people. I over think and over analyze and get really nervous. I don’t know how to just be me. So I like drinking a little too much, getting a good buzz going, so that my inhibitions are lowered. It’s easy not to conform when you have “liquid courage” (such an accurate description). But Scripture speaks against drunkenness of any kind. It’s usually listed alongside sexual promiscuity and other things NOT to do, under any circumstances.

So there’s conviction here–not to lose self-control.  I believe Jesus is teaching me in these moments to be brave without aid. To work through my insecurities instead of just bypassing them. So there’s repentance and a (re)learning how to be me. But I don’t think or believe that my drunkenness means that I am kicked out of the kingdom of God. He is so good and kind that as we walk this journey together he is teaching me to find comfort in him, to find strength in him, and how to live outside of the cage that I have spent years hiding in. He is gently growing me up into the new identity he claimed for me. He is making me new. And I believe this process is true for anyone who loves God and is seeking him. Jesus says that all who seek him will find him. And I believe he picks each one of us up where we’re at and moves us gently closer and closer to himself–until we become a unique image-bearer of his love. This, friends, is a life-long process and looks different for each of us.

I think when we’re open to questions and willing to ponder and wrestle through the “what ifs” with others, amazing things can happen. I think we start to see a really diverse kingdom–a table set like the one where Jesus sat when he walked the earth. And the awesome thing? Because he’s living in us, he’s kind of still here, walking the earth. He’s breaking bread with people through us. He’s touching people through us–we get to declare the unlovely things lovely because he does.

Yes, we were called to “make disciples” but we were taught to do it by invitation and love, with compassion and empathy, with hearts and hands that go to the dark scary places and are willing to walk the path others have walked, meeting them where they are right now. Because that is what Jesus did for us. And I’m so sorry some of the people I associate with have done such a pathetic job of showing this world first and foremost how people–you–were created FOR loving.

For Lent I felt an invitation. An invitation to set aside alcohol for a season to press into Jesus a little deeper. To ask questions about my relationship with alcohol. Not to turn from one pendulum swing to the other, but to explore a little deeper Jesus’s heart for me. Because he’s already unlocked the door–I have been set free. I can press into him for that release and courage. And I want to step towards him. I can respond to this invitation to walk out of the cage–because of his great love for me. And I can be brave because of who he is and what he already did.

Christian Community

photo by Jennifer Upton
photo by Jennifer Upton

I like things organized and categorized. It’s not “a place for everything and everything in it’s place” cause Doug and I seem to live in chaos. But when it comes to my understanding of how things work, I like there to be a box. You are my friend because you say nice things about me and make me feel good. You are not a friend because you don’t say nice things. You gave birth to me so you are my mom. You’re my sister because we share DNA/grew up together/were together on all the major holidays. I like well-defined relationships. I like knowing where I stand, how I’ll be received and how to guard myself against attack.

But relationships outside my immediate family have been sporadic and undefinable. I went through a season recently where I heard about this thing called Christian Community and longed desperately for it, but it seemed out of my reach. I wanted people who would walk alongside me and daily breathe in and out the gospel with me, teaching me and letting me teach them. I wanted someone who would mentor me. I wanted someone who I could daily share my struggles with about loving my kids well and serving my husband. I wanted someone I could mentor and pour into and watch her thrive and grow. There were bursts and seasons where one of these things would happen. But overall, none of these endeavors went beyond a year. I lived and breathed bitterness. I did what I was told to do to foster these kinds of relationships, and nothing happened. I blamed the church for not taking me seriously, or taking a big enough interest in me. For losing me in the crowd, even though I’d paid my dues.There is a lot of arrogance and wounded pride wrapped up in this package.

So God beat me down. In the most gentle way imaginable He deconstructed my boxes. My first experience with this happened on the trip I took to Africa two years ago. It was my experience with this girl leading up to and on the trip that challenged my view of this “boxiness.” She is younger than me. She is not married. She is kid-less. But she taught me (and continues to teach me) about the never-stopping, never giving up, always and forever love that God has for me. She, more than any other person I know, believes that she is created by God for beauty. Somehow she gets things about God’s character that are hard for me to believe, so in His mercy He brought her into my life to teach me. And I was floored. I continue to be humbled. She teaches me.

But it was in a conversation with some other women that God taught me about His design for relationships. They asked me if I was mentoring anyone, and I said no. They said her name. I immediately shook my head, thinking, “do you know how much she taught me? Do you know where she found me and where she led me to? This place of freedom and beauty where I get to dance knowing my Jesus loves me, simply because He created me? And you’re telling me this beautiful, witty, funny, smart, life-breathing person is learning something from me?” I didn’t believe it. I still have trouble wrapping my head around it. We haven’t had the relationship talk. But I do know this: in our time together, she has gleaned something from me. There is no box for this. It’s just the gospel working itself out in a friendship.

And I’ve realized that church isn’t something to define. It’s not a box or a category or something that has a clear cut beginning and end. Last night we had friends over for supper and because we all love Jesus, we talked about Jesus. This was church. Our conversation ebbed and flowed. I drank a little too much. A soon-to-be dad showed off his swaddling skills and wrapped a glass in a napkin. A few people received head massages. Kyler might have run around the house nearly naked. But it was church. There was an undercurring theme of “how do we live out the gospel and love people and love our church, in the midst of our bitterness and frustration?” The conversation was beneficial, fruitful and beautiful.

And I’ve seen this truth demonstrated as snapshots over the last few years–that really great conversation outside my kid’s school… That skype call with my sister as she pours out her heart about moving to Sudan… Singing songs with other believers on Sunday morning in Austin, or in a living room in Africa with no power and an acoustic guitar and my off-key voice lending something unique and memorable to the experience… A great conversation over coffee with a friend I see once a year where she exhorts me… THIS is church. There are no boxes or labels. It’s just loving the people God has brought into my life and pointing one another to Jesus. It’s hard. I’d much rather have that well-defined group that meets Wednesday nights, and studies Scripture and then finds a way to serve some orphans in Austin and internationally. Some way to track my growth. Some way to say, “see look, I’m doing the Christian thing.” But that just has not been my norm. Instead, I have snippets. I have conversations. So I’ve learned to embrace the places between the boxes and live there. It’s undefinable. But it is real. It is authentic.

And it’s transcendental. Because there is no box that can adequately contain these relationships, no box that encompasses what CHURCH is, there is much freedom. We are able so far as our culture, era, time of day, season of life, proximity, and cultural persecution to experience church in a variety of ways. I’m not sure there’s a right way or a wrong way to do church–barring anything Paul teaches against in 1 Corinthians (getting drunk on the Lord’s supper, sleeping with your father’s wife, being so loud and boisterous you distract from God, etc.). The point of gathering with other believers is to exhort and encourage one another in righteousness. It is our job to point one another to Jesus when once again our flesh fails. Church is important; Christian Community is a requirement for the believer. But it isn’t always identifiable or quantifiable. And it won’t look the same for every single believer.

That is the beauty of the gospel.


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