The Glorious Muddle
glimpses of grace in the messiness of life

May 17, 2018

What if Your Church Vanished?

The following article, What if your Church Vanished?, was published in my local paper, The News Herald, on April 27.

Taryn Hutchison color headshot

Taryn Hutchison, author of “We Wait You,” is a writing instructor at Lenoir-Rhyne University’s Writing Center.

Hundreds of churches are sprinkled across Burke County’s towns and tucked away in its back roads. With all sizes and denominations, there’s something for everyone who’s interested.

My church is about to break ground on a long-awaited building. In preparation, we’ve been discussing what our church is all about.

A question on a book cover caught my eye recently. “If your church vanished, would your community weep? Would anyone notice?”

Would people care if your church closed its doors? 

Even if your church doesn’t have a succinct, catchy mission statement, it still has a purpose for being. Everything your church does, and how it does it, reflects that purpose.

Many churches cite building up the body as their reason for existence. They list priorities like teaching, worship, fellowship and serving one another.

They quote Hebrews 10:24-25: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another.”

They hope people will see how they love each other, thereby attracting them to Christ. But sometimes members don’t know very many people outside their church. Who’s going to see that love?

A church with only an inward focus speaks to part, not all, of what it means to be a Christ-follower.

Other churches focus outside themselves. Their mission is to reach the lost. They talk about community outreach or global missions, or both.

They start where they live, in their local community. From there, their mission field branches out in ever-widening circles, like a pebble thrown into a pond, to the uttermost corners of the earth.

They claim Acts 1:8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

But sometimes members resent their own growth being overlooked. The teaching may be so geared to new people that their own itch isn’t scratched.

My question is: why choose between inward or outward focus? We’re called to do both, to build up our members and reach our communities.

The book with the question that grabbed my attention, “The Externally Focused Church,” is written by my friend Eric Swanson. In it, he claims that the church doesn’t need to decide between proclaiming truth and engaging in social action. It’s possible to serve your community without compromising the gospel message.

“The church is called to be separate in lifestyle, but never to be isolated from the people it seeks to influence,” Swanson writes. “Salt, light, and leaven don’t work very well from a distance.”

Service to the community can be a form of worship as you pray together, trusting God for something big. Bonding and growth happen when you work shoulder to shoulder with each other.

By loving your neighbors in practical ways, community service becomes part of your DNA. Bridges and relationships are built when you go to them without expecting them to come to you. You might find common ground in surprising places.

Feeding hungry children, helping needy single moms, or serving widows becomes an end in itself. Jesus claimed that whatever we do for the least of these, we do for him (Matthew 25:40).

If you give with the motive of hoping to receive — either new members for your church or a sense of fulfillment — your gift arrives tied with strings.

Yet, you probably will draw people, not only to your church, but to Christ. They will be people who care if your church vanishes.

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April 26, 2018

When Life Interrupts Your Plans

Life is full of interruptions. Every day, you have small, nagging distractions that interfere with whatever you intend to do. It may not be anything major, and it may be short-lived. But these interruptions are constant. And irritating.

People who are demanding. Things that waste your time. Machines that break down. You can’t stop these distractions from coming, but you can choose not to give in. At least not right then.

Then there are the larger interruptions that reorient your entire life’s plan and take over everything. You have dreams and sometimes those dreams don’t work out the way you want, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Death. Illness. Financial setbacks. Relationship breakups.

I don’t feel like I’ve ever had a big interruption. Not yet. But small ones? Always.

My design for my Medical Shuttle and Stitch Removal Service car.

Especially now. I set goals—very specific goals—when I switched to part-time work. I planned to use my time at home to polish my first novel (in a series of three), finish the second one, even start the third one, all while trying to find an agent who will represent me.

But that all changed when I became the (temporary) caregiver for not only my husband, but my parents as well. Lately, my free time has been spent running a Medical Shuttle and Stitch Removal Service, with a blood clean-up sideline. (Seriously, a great idea for a ministry to seniors in the community!)

My husband’s current schedule of four therapy appointments and two wound care appointments every week will end someday. I’m grateful for that and don’t take it lightly. But I’ve lost count of the number of doctor’s offices, in three cities, I’ve visited these past couple of months.

Needless to say, I’m over it. But this season in my life is not over. When I try to imagine the years ahead, I realize this may just be the beginning of a l o n g winter.

Will it be a winter of discontent? That seems to be the one factor I can control.

The situations are out of my control. But my reaction to them—my attitude—that I own.

I wish I could say I always respond pleasantly, with great patience. But I’d be lying if I did.

When I lived in Eastern Europe in the 1990s, I learned to expect the unexpected. That seemed appropriate for that place in time, but aren’t you supposed to better able to control life in the States? I guess not.

When I asked a group of friends if their lives had turned out the way they’d expected, all of them said a resounding, “No.” They didn’t complain about their lives; sometimes they could already see how the different path was actually much better. Even the ones who face extremely difficult situations said they wouldn’t trade it for anything.

No, they haven’t accomplished their well-laid plans, at least not in whole. So how do they take that in stride? As one friend said, after learning her child was disabled: “I expected my life to go in one direction and the Lord said, no, this is the life I planned for you. For the rest of your life. I just had to accept it and get on with it.”

She learned the secret: to hold your days—your life—with palms open before the Lord. She learned to say, “Not my will, but thine.”


March 27, 2018

Gifts at Easter

This Easter week, you’ve probably reflected on the most central story of Christianity: Jesus dying on the cross and rising from the dead. The greatest gift ever offered. A few parallel stories, some of my favorites in the Bible, are also about gifts. Sometimes I forget how close in timing and proximity they are to the main action. 

These secondary stories increase the tension as it moves toward its climactic crescendo, in the same way that the grand finale brings an exclamation point to a spectacular fireworks show. 

Parallel Story #1:  The Gift that Cost a Lot

I’ve long been interested in the three siblings–Martha, Mary, and Lazarus–whose home Jesus frequently stayed in, partly because they are a non-traditional family, with all three being unmarried. But mostly, I love them because Jesus seemed to enjoy being with them. Their house is in Bethany, less than two miles from Jerusalem, so it’s an easy walk that Jesus takes often.

Not much time elapsed between one of the most miraculous events of Jesus’ ministry and the beginning of Holy Week. His friend Lazarus dies, Jesus waits four days to come to Lazarus’s sisters, and when he does, he raises Lazarus from the dead. It’s because of this event, and the large number who witnessed it (made larger since he waited four days), that the plot to kill Jesus intensifies.

In the account of this story, found in John 11, Jesus says something which the crowd gathered there probably remembered, and puzzled over, in the weeks to come. 

I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.             John 11:25-26

In fact, after seeing him call Lazarus forth out of his tomb-grave, I wonder if some among them tried to grab on to a sliver of hope that Jesus would do the same for himself. Did they have even a mustard seed of faith that Jesus might never die?

Soon after bringing Lazarus back to life, just six days before Passover (according to John 12), Jesus goes back to Bethany to visit the siblings. During this visit, Mary breaks open the vial of extravagant perfume and pours it on Jesus’s feet, thereby anointing him for his burial. Mary chose worship over duty.

For context, Mary’s the sister who earlier chose the one necessary thing, to sit at the Lord’s feet and listen to him, while her sister Martha scurried about checking off her To-Do list (Luke 10:38-42). For you Bible scholars, Jesus was anointed a second time, two days before Passover, by an unnamed woman who poured the perfume from an alabaster jar onto his head (Matthew 26).

Mary gave the most expensive gift she had to give. Once again, Mary chose the important thing over the practical one. She gave, freely and extravagantly, in worship.

Parallel Story #2: The Gift that Cost Everything

The very next day after being anointed by Mary in Bethany, Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey’s colt, with palm branches waved and “Hosanas” shouted to him.

Jesus spends the night of Palm Sunday in Bethany again with his friends, and the next day, he’s back in Jerusalem. In the temple there, Jesus watches a parade of people showing off their good works by throwing large amounts into the treasury. A poor widow shuffles by and places two copper coins in the offering, worth only a couple cents.

Marginalized and ignored by society, she was accustomed to being overlooked. But Jesus sees her. He commends her for giving everything she had to give.

Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything–all she had to live on.                                                          Mark 12:43-44

In his last few days on earth, Jesus makes sure that we have a lasting example for how to give:  generously. The widow gave without knowing where her next meal would come from. She didn’t give to earn a plaque with her name engraved on it–we don’t even know what it is–or to join the Jerusalem Society of Major Donors.

And yet her faith earned her a spot in Scripture. She gave from her heart. The widow gave less than anyone else, but she gave it all. She gave in faith.

The Central Story: The Gift that was Enough

The rapid-fire barrage of stories leads to the grand finale. They culminate in the cross, with the Gift above all Gifts.

God gave the most precious thing he had to give: His Son. God had it in his heart from the beginning to sacrifice his only and much-loved son, all because of his love for us. It’s the reason he sent his son to live among us. It cost God a lot.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.            John 3:16                                            

Jesus gave all he had to give: His life. Jesus’s life was never taken from him. He wasn’t murdered. He willingly gave up his life. He gave it up for us. He gave everything.

The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.         John 10:17-18

Jesus gave enough. He completed the work he was sent to do. Nothing more was needed; the penalty for our sin was satisfied. On the cross, with his dying breath, he said, “It is finished.”

Three days later, He was alive. He rose, victorious over death. And because of that, we can live and never die.


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March 19, 2018

Take Care as You Give Care

I spent my Spring Break week off work in a hospital room in a city an hour away. No, not as a patient. I didn’t experience any excruciating physical pain but I suffered the emotional stress of waiting and watching someone I love hurt. No question that the patient has the harder role, and I wouldn’t trade places with my husband for anything, but I’ve learned a few things in my intensive course in caregiving.

As you give care to others, you need to take some for yourself. Caregiver burnout is a very real thing, and there are practical ways to lessen the negative effect on yourself.

Photo by Daan Stevens on Unsplash

If you are a caregiver, you need to build a support system. You need other people to help you shoulder your load. When faced with traumatic stress, you may not know what, or who, you want. Before your situation becomes desperate, think about an answer you can give to people who offer their help.

Certain people are better suited for different tasks. Maybe you have a friend who gets overwhelmed by the idea of fixing a meal for your family, but she’d love to roll up her sleeves and help you clean. What are the tasks your loved one used to do that now fall on you? Or perhaps you just want to talk to a friend you can be real with.

If you truly want to help a caregiver, just show up and do something helpful. Don’t put the onus on them to tell you what they need.

That’s what my friends did for me this last week. They took care of me as I tried to take care of Steve. Two dear friends from my former life in Eastern Europe came quite a distance to sit with me in the hospital and wait through the long surgery. We talked about all kinds of things, laughed and even cried together. They lifted my spirits and reminded me that I’m not alone. If they’d asked me if I needed them to come, I would’ve said, “No, I’ll be fine. It’s too far.” So they didn’t ask. They showed up. They ministered to my soul.

As I gave care to Steve, the care offered to me surprised me. When we arrived back home, our wonderful neighbors showed up on our doorstep with meals and desserts. They didn’t ask; they just came. We both felt loved and uplifted by comments from friends around the world on Facebook and Instagram. They reminded us of God’s constant care. Many assured us of their prayers not only for Steve, but for me as well.

If you are a caregiver, you need to take time for yourself. You probably feel exhausted. You’re not sleeping well; you’re called on to be a nurse even if you have no aptitude or training for it; and you’re doing all your regular tasks plus the other person’s tasks. Taking care of your health isn’t selfish. If you don’t, you won’t have the strength and energy to care for your loved one. Walk, eat healthy meals, get fresh air, try to sleep.

Steve’s the morning person in our marriage. He’s the one who wakes up, alert and cheerful, makes breakfast, feeds the cats, and makes my latte before gently waking me up. (I know. Spoiled rotten.) I’ve never woken up cheerful in my life, but especially not after not sleeping most of the night listening to him moaning in pain and wondering if I need to call 911. When I do rise, I find my husband sitting patiently, waiting for me, and the cats outside on the porch doing backflips, not so patiently. In the long and painful weeks ahead of rehabilitation, we will all (human and animal) have to get used to our new normal.

I’ve learned the only way I can function is to steal whatever time I can to be alone. New moms learn to make the most of naptime to do whatever it takes to be recharged, and the same goes for all kinds of caregivers. Naptime is sacred for me, and thankfully, Steve takes frequent naps.

It’s best for me when my alone time isn’t totally alone. The only way I am restored is when I come, weary and burdened, to the One who gives me true rest for my soul, who exchanges my heavy yoke for his easy one. I like to pray Proverbs 11:25 for myself: “…whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.”

I’ve used the term “caregiver” but you might say “caretaker.” The dictionary says the two terms can be used interchangeably. However, there is a more nuanced distinction.

Caregivers give care to someone who can’t take care of themselves: babies, the elderly, the sick, or the disabled. That’s pretty straightforward, but it seems a caretaker should mean the exact opposite: the recipient of care. I give care but I also take it when it’s offered to me, so am I simultaneously a caregiver and a care-taker?

In the most common usage, caretakers take care of something, such as a building or an estate.

The life I started preparing for years ago, as a caregiver, is beginning to unfold. It’s the reason my husband and I moved to a more affordable town on the other side of the country, and settled my parents in the same town. So far, it’s been relatively easy with my semi-independent parents. But as they age, and their medical care increases, my role as caregiver becomes more defined.

I see God’s perfect timing for my decision last fall to switch to part-time work. In the last two weeks, each of my parents had outpatient procedures (in two different cities) before my husband’s major surgery in a third city. Between them, post-op appointments are set for weeks to come, some at the same time in different hospitals. Needless to say, I’m the designated driver, and I’m stretched thin.

Others have stepped in to help. They take care of me as I give care to my family.

Even the weather reflected God’s care of us. The day before Steve ‘s discharge was snowy and icy, and I didn’t relish driving my spinal patient husband straight down curvy mountain roads. By the time we did leave, the sun had melted all the snow.


March 8, 2018

The Impossibility of Being Set Free

Have you prayed for something for so long, with no answer, that you’ve begun to doubt that it’ll ever happen? You might even think it’s impossible.My husband and I, along with an army of people from our former church in California, have had such an ongoing request. Last night, we received news so wonderful that I can hardly believe it’s true. Our friend, who I’ve renamed Chester for his protection, is being paroled. He will be set free!Chester has served 24 years in California prisons for three crimes committed as a young man. He has spent his entire adult life behind bars. His crimes did not involve violence. He broke the law, for sure, and he needed to be held responsible. He stole about $136 worth of goods, swiping two $20 bills from an open cash register for his third strike crime. But 24 years?

Steve met with Chester often at San Quentin, and I got to know him at volunteer events. We both have been moved by his story. In prison, he was introduced to Jesus Christ and his life changed dramatically. Through years of disappointments and abuse, Chester has continually praised God, believing that he is free on the inside and that God is in control of his situation, even though he physically remained in bondage.

I have blogged about him several times in the past, and I even wrote my research paper for Rhetoric class on the Three Strikes Reform Law, using Chester as one of many examples. As a matter of fact, Chester’s story helped get the reform law passed, six years ago, but he continued to sit behind bars as others were released.

What kept him going? He had a purpose in life. He helped bring about change, and restore the law to its intended result:  to keep violent criminals off the streets. Ultimately, he trusted in God’s goodness, believing that He is bigger than the judicial process.

You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. Genesis 50:2

In the process of my research, I discovered work being done by law students and professors at Stanford Law to get some of the nonviolent three-strikers, like Chester, released, people whose punishment far exceeded their crimes. We got Chester connected with them. I’d like to think that helped, but that was almost three years ago.

Finally, soon, he will be set free! We rejoice with our brother.

Our faith in God, that He can answer even impossible prayers, has just grown a bit. I’ve been reminded that nothing is impossible with God.