We sat beside each other in the back of the church, with our knees touching and our deflated hearts mirroring the same overwhelming discouragement. Everyone else sat in front of us, their backs to us as they sang the last few worship songs, oblivious to the spiral of defeat we were swirling in a few feet behind them. My husband and I couldn’t be much further from the typical pastor and pastor’s wife, or so we’re told. He loves to cook and is much better at laundry than I am. We argue over who is the bigger introvert. I don’t play the piano or help with children’s ministry, no one has ever in my whole life described me as sweet or quiet, and in the past year I’ve had pink hair a handful of times. Whether or not we fit the stereotypical description of a family in church ministry, at that moment I imagine we felt what thousands of ministers of the gospel had felt before us, and I imagine we’ll feel it again in the future.
It was Easter 2016, our third Easter together as a church, and we’d anticipated it. Holy anticipation, sacred expectation—we were both hoping for some revival. We’d made invitation cards for everyone in our church weeks before and asked them to pray over who they wanted to invite. We’d held prayer gatherings to ask for God’s power to be displayed among our people that day. Nick, my husband, had prepped an amazing sermon and then preached his heart out.
But friends? It just didn’t go down like we had pictured. Nick had seen a few people fall asleep during the sermon, and from where we sat in the back, we could see people looking bored, using their phones during worship. I am sure God moved in people’s hearts and shifted things in the spiritual space, but outwardly it looked like any other Sunday, or even a little worse. It felt like the dreaded “off Sunday,” which flew in the face of the Sunday we’d anticipated, planned, prayed over, and hoped for.
So we sat in the back like two young kids who’d lost their little league game. We tried to encourage each other a little bit, rallied enough to say good-bye to everyone, tore down our mobile church (we meet in an elementary school), and took our kids to lunch to celebrate Easter. We didn’t talk much for the rest of the day about what had happened that morning but instead shifted gears and discussed what the upcoming spring break would look like for our family.
The tension was thick. We’d hoped God was going to show up and do something incredible. We’d hoped for life change at least and revival at best. We were doing all of this for God, so wasn’t He going to show us His presence and His power?
The next morning, in a quiet moment, I let myself pull the string a little bit. As I spent time with the Lord, I got honest and open with my Father and told Him how I felt about our Easter. I cried about my unmet expectations and what seemed like the lackluster spiritual state of our church. I told Him how hard it was to be a church planter’s wife, and it was feeling particularly difficult with so little visible fruit and outward change. And then finally, when I was done telling Him how I felt about it, I decided to be quiet for a moment and let Him tell me how He felt. I asked if there was any correction or reproof for me, any part of this problem in which I’d been complicit without realizing it.
It’s worth noting that I sure didn’t anticipate a rebuke. I thought He might give me some piece of Scripture or sense that we were doing all we could do and confirm that this was simply everyone else’s fault. True story.
I didn’t sit long before something interesting happened in my brain. As I replayed the day, three particular conversations stood out. If my memory of the day was like a fluid stream of water before, now there were three ugly boulders disrupting the stream — three big boulders that didn’t belong there. And these recollections didn’t have anything to do with other people’s sins or issues — they were about me. I had had three separate conversations with three separate women in our church that Easter morning, all of them eerily similar and kind of embarrassing to remember. And if they were embarrassing in my own mind, you can only imagine how humbling it is for me to share them with you now. But that’s where we gotta start, sisters. Someone has to go first.
Pretty Little Liars
I’d gone to each of these women individually and told them about something that was on my mind, something I felt compelled to share and excited to talk about. I’d initiated these conversations — with my friends, these women of God, on this super-spiritual and holy day of Easter — with an agenda. I point this out in such an explicit way because you need to picture it fully: these conversations didn’t happen accidentally, and no one was trying to fill the space or make light banter. I went there with intention.
What I had to share wasn’t a new passage of Scripture that was impacting me or a truth God was revealing in my heart. It wasn’t a burden I was praying through or an answer to prayer I was eager to communicate.
What did I go out of my way to talk about to those three daughters of God that fine Easter Sunday? The show Pretty Little Liars. (Don’t shut the book. I promise this is going somewhere.)
Now let me back up, in case you’re not familiar with Pretty Little Liars, or PLL for short. Wikipedia describes it as “an American teen drama, mystery-thriller television series based loosely on the popular book series of the same title.” Wikipedia also tells us it was meant to be “Desperate Housewives for teens,” a theory I can corroborate. One magazine called it a cross between I Know What You Did Last Summer and Gossip Girl. So, yeah — that’s the gist.
I just felt this utter compulsion to talk to the women in my church about it on that fine Easter Sunday because I’d begun watching it and couldn’t get enough. Did I talk about how expectant we were for worship that day? No. Did I share with them how Nick and I had been fasting and praying for our people to experience the Lord on Easter Sunday? No. Did I ask them how God was moving in their hearts and lives? Give them an opportunity to testify to His great love and mercy? No. I just told them about this semi-raunchy, teenage murder-mystery TV show I’d been watching. And then I plopped myself down in the back of the church wondering why we weren’t in the midst of revival.
And so I sat there the following morning, feeling all the love and grace and mercy from my Father, who knows I make mistakes over and over again. I didn’t feel condemnation or shame, but a warm conviction spread through me. My heart began to beat faster, and my head throbbed with one very loud question:
Have I forgotten about holiness?
What shift in my spirit had caused me to talk about something so profane when, in reality, I was so spiritually expectant? How often was I doing this — living on the outside like someone who isn’t thinking about God all the time, when on the inside my heart is solely for Him? Was this how I was leading others? Ignoring the sacred to fit in and seem normal?
Had I grabbed grace and abandoned the call to be set apart? Had I missed the abundance available to me by walking the mysterious duality of relationship with God — grace and truth? I talk a lot and think a lot about freedom, about what I’ve been freed from. But suddenly I was wondering: Why don’t I think about where I’ve been freed to? If I was taken out of darkness, condemnation, and the shackles of sin, then where does my soul currently reside?
I wondered: Am I on holy ground? If so, how is that compelling me to live, and why, for the love, am I talking about Pretty Little Liars on Easter Sunday? Have I forgotten about holiness?
I sat in my bed, having the most honest moment with the Lord, holding my coffee cup and looking out the window with clarity, confirming this one thing in my soul: Yes, I think I forgot about holiness.
Then I got out of bed and marched into my husband’s home office, where I began talking and confessing and conjecturing in circles and loops. I went through the whole story and laid my questions bare for him, telling him I had this rooted sense in my soul that maybe I wasn’t the only one, maybe a lot of us had forgotten about holiness. He nodded and affirmed my verbal ramblings with a slight smile as he continued to let me process.
Then I started asking friends in whispers at coffee shops, “Do you think we’ve forgotten about holiness? Do you think it’s just me? Is this a thing?” Their blank stares were followed by slow nods, maybe an errant tear or two running down their cheeks. After I confessed, they confessed in return. Though none of us had talked about it, we’d all felt some version of an ache in the back of our hearts. We were all living with some awareness of the tension between what we believe about God and what our lives say we believe about God.
None of us wanted to tumble into legalism or spiritual perfectionism, but we were all feeling something here, a conviction that maybe something was amiss.
I couldn’t help but think back on times where a friend confessed some sin to me and I plastered “grace” all over her with my words, dismissing her conviction. Memories of times I asked for grace in the wake of hurting someone, skipping casually over the process of repentance and restoration, suddenly stood out to me vividly. There were so many times I’d invoked grace for myself and others, and in these instances it seemed we traded what could have been sharpening and growth for easy dismissal.
We give ourselves grace about nitpicking at our husbands, not spending time with the Lord, misusing our finances, telling little white lies, having bad attitudes, and losing it on those around us in the midst of stressful days. We give ourselves grace, but somewhere along the way we stopped letting that grace transform us as it is meant to. And I wondered: Has this caused us to lose sight of our holy standing with God?
As I shared these ideas with my people, we realized that we talk about grace, mission, mothering, and our dreams. We talk about fashion, culture, the books we’re reading, leaders we love, and things we’re praying about. But we don’t talk about holiness—ours or God’s.
Oftentimes on Friday mornings, the women in our community meet for sunrise prayer at the beach. Sometimes there are twenty of us, sometimes there are three of us, and oftentimes it’s just me. The Friday after Easter I met a few gals for our usual prayer time, and with shaky hands I told them, “I feel a tug to pull this string and linger on this question, asking it first for myself, and then for our generation: Have we forgotten about holiness, and have we traded our pursuit of the things above for a grace that is not compelling us to much at all?” They were honest and told me the question stung, but that they were glad I had asked it. Laughing, they shook their heads, gently joking with me about how I ought to write a book on the topic, about what a hard book that would be to write and maybe not an easy one to read, but I should think on it.
Here’s where I should tell you that this is not the book I set out to write. But it has become the book I most need, and friend, I hope the same will be true for you.
Excerpted with permission from Dance, Stand, Run by Jess Connolly, copyright Jess Connolly. Published by Zondervan
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Sisters, are you joining us for the Dance, Stand, Run Online Bible study starting April 2? Register now! You may find a friend to join you, but if not, no worries — I’ll be doing the OBS on my own, too, along with our private Facebook group! ~ Laurie McClure, your OBS leader