Hi Sweet Friends,
Kevin asked me to share my church journey story in a church service a few months ago. I wrote it down and read it because I wanted to be brief and accurate. If left to my own wandering mind, I would have started talking about church, inserted what I would be having for lunch, and ended with my excitement over my 30% off coupon at Kohl’s. (Don’t you just love those?) The point in sharing wasn’t about going to church or duty, it was about a heart change in me and about God graciously revealing to me my own selfishness and self-protection. Since public speaking isn’t my thing, or private speaking for that matter, I hoped that sharing with you in writing might bring clarity.
My dad was the song leader and my mom the piano player in the smallish Missouri church into which I was born. They met as teens in gospel singing groups and have made music together for 70 years now. Church was as matter-of-fact as dinner and bed in our lives. One of my earliest memories is wallowing all over Daddy’s lap in church, always on the front row. He would cross his legs in a way that left a hole for me to drop my rear into, and I thought he must be magical for knowing how to do that. Church was the center of our social and spiritual lives. I accepted Jesus as my Savior at age nine after hearing that I should my whole life. I began to take faith, teaching, and morality very seriously. I was now among the ranks that called themselves Christians, and I certainly wanted to get an “A+” on my Christian report card. There was also in me a deep-seated fear that if I didn’t do Christianity well then God wouldn’t like me or He would withdraw the grace I had accepted for my eternity with Him. That is a lot of pressure on a little girl’s fearful and immature heart. I grew up towing the line and judging those who didn’t. Lord only knows who I hurt or completely dismissed. I’m so sorry.
Fast forward nearly 50 years, and I am a pastor’s wife of a small church in Kentucky. A lot has transpired in those years, but church has remained a constant. Not the same church, of course; which is most of our stories. God does new things and creates new ministries and new callings; but often those new things are birthed through the labor pains of something old, familiar, and safe ending. Our church stories are different than many of our grandparents’ who stayed in one place and one church their whole lives. We move, our needs change, our differences become more apparent, and we’ve been hurt. Of course we’ve been hurt. We’re living in community as churches with lots of ideas, personalities, giftings, visions, and theological differences. Of course they clash. Church is messy because people are messy. Everyone has a hard story in their life because we are born into a broken world. It’s like an allied paratrooper being dropped into Normandy. I have come to appreciate the quote that some attribute to Plato: “Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle you nothing about.” Indeed! And what do we do about the hurt? In Don Miller’s book, The Open Table, he expresses that Scripture and the Gospel are pure, but the people and organizations that are keepers of the flame are not. “I would think the only way a person could make their way through the religious landscape is to have a great deal of forgiveness for those who traffic there.” Amen! I need your forgiveness, friends; and I hope to always offer you mine when needed.
Kevin and I started having leadership roles in church in our 20’s, and Kevin started pastoring in his early 30’s. It was like parenting; you start with the intention of doing it right and better than those who handed it to you. Sooner or later, hopefully sooner, you realize you are a blithering idiot and don’t know what you’re doing; and, suddenly, you have immense respect for anyone that lasted in it. Not just leadership, but church. It seems that those most passionate about their relationship with Jesus must have the “self” blasted out of them with what feels like an atomic bomb. By “self” I mean all that we think we are and all that we think we must be or must have. This is necessary so that we can find ourselves rolled in a helpless ball at God’s feet and say, “It’s either all you, God, or nothing. I have nothing of myself to offer. What would you like to do through me, and how would you like to use the body and abilities that you have entrusted to me for your glory?” If we learn nothing else in our short stay here, please let it be humility. We all struggle with it. May it always win.
I struggled much in our first few years at our present Grace Fellowship. It was new, young, and unfamiliar. I felt like a spectator at a track event that had just been given a baton and told to run. The only place I wanted to run was out the door. I did things dutifully but horribly uncomfortably and, sometimes, resentfully. There was a lot of rejection in the beginning. We weren’t the leaders that many in the group wanted. There are few things that hurt as much as having the integrity of your heart misinterpreted. I’ve been on both ends of that in my life, I’m sorry to say. And yet, what is the call? Do we get to say, “Never mind,” and pull the blinds and drink coffee with our Bible alone? God is very faithful to tell us how to relate in Scripture. It always centers around humility, forgiveness, unity, generosity, honesty, love, laying down your own life, loving others more than yourself, selflessness, and sacrifice. This is how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit relate; this is what we are invited into and asked to be a physical expression of in this world through what is called the church. Church is about a relationship; we are the bride of Christ. How on earth are we to express that well when we are encumbered by the daily things that make up our lives? When Jesus had skin on, he was very aware of needs and was involved in the providing of food and money and physical necessities. He knew what it was to be hot, tired, and rejected. He knew that almost every waking moment would have someone in His face wanting something from Him. He also did what none of us ever will, be tortured and crucified to rescue humanity and give them back to God out of His extreme love for us and His extreme love for God. In light of that, what does having hurt feelings or extra responsibilities look like? I must rethink what I call sacrifice.
I have often fantasized about the day that we no longer have responsibilities at church. We can come and go as we please and travel on weekends. We’ll only have to worry about ourselves. I’ve also looked with envy at the larger, well-established churches that seem to run like clockwork with a million things going on and a million hands to help. How easy and fun that must be. In writing, these are blaringly obvious lies. But in the moment when the enemy of our souls is coaxing us into self-indulgence and self-protection, the lines get blurry and our egos lead us to grab the only remaining life vest on the boat. Every man for himself! If there is one thing I have learned on my church journey and life journey it is this: God will never, ever, ever allow me to just do me. Why? Because that is not the life of Christ in me. There is no selfishness or self-indulgence or hiding in the character of Christ. There is no looking out for number one. We’re not allowed to live in self-protection or self-gratification or “self” anything. We have traded our life for His. We live in a context of sacrifice. We carry our hurting and fallen brother and sister forever. We visit the prisoner and widow forever. We feed the poor forever. We seek healing for the hurting forever. I will never get to just do me. No one that claims the name of Christ ever will. So we show up in the places that Jesus does. It’s not a law. It’s not a duty. It’s not optional. It’s who we are. And it’s forever. Love is a far greater motivator than guilt will ever be.
God brought some physical pictures to mind recently to remind me of a principle and verses that I don’t often think of when looking at my story. I could have watched them all day. One was a family of geese that I saw swimming across the lake. They stay in families until the babies are big and when they swim, one parent is in front, babies in the middle, and a parent in back. They’re in a straight line the whole way. The parents just instinctively know this is how you protect from the front and back and how you teach the babies to survive. No one gets to go out on their own. A few days later I was at a red light at Noble Park watching a string of kids cross the highway to Dairy Queen. They were well supervised with an adult in front, followed by kids, another adult, more kids, and an adult in the very back. There were eyes and protection on the children at all times. No one could get to them without meeting a protective adult first. No one gets to go out on their own. They were beautiful reminders to me of the verse in Psalm 139:5 that says, “You go before me and behind me. You place your hand of blessing on my head.” And Isaiah 52:12 that says, “For the Lord will go before you, and the God of Israel will be your rear guard.” This means God has been protecting us and providing for us in our future and our past all along. We look ahead at the murky waters of our future knowing that God is already there. He knows what’s coming and He knows how to prepare us for it. We look behind us at a, sometimes, hurtful past and we see Him there too. Not causing or condoning all of it, but certainly always with us in it, ready to use it for good for those who love Him. I saw a beautiful zinnia stalk in the middle of nothing today on my walk, and I wondered how it got there. I was reminded how seeds are transported in nature by wind and through the digestive system of birds and animals. If a seed had a brain, I would like to know what it was thinking as it was swallowed, digested, and dropped in a pile of yuck, only to be brought forth in a beautiful flower fulfilling the purpose for which it was made. I love it! Likewise, I watched my sweet baby nephew crawl around my house crying and looking for his mommy when I kept him recently. It made me sad to think of all that must be swirling around in his baby brain. His broken heart broke mine. If only he knew what I knew. I knew his mommy would be back soon. I knew he was safe and cared for and his tears would stop soon. I knew his story, and I knew what was coming. Immediate relief isn’t always the best for us. The immediate story to baby Christopher is, “Somebody get my mommy ASAP!” The bigger story is that Christopher’s parents will always care and provide for him, and this is part of his story in becoming a man. They know what’s coming and how to prepare him for it. There are no mommy/son dorms at college. Trust me, I’ve checked.
Our stories are different. Our church stories are different. We all have piles of yuck. We also all have zinnias and such sweet graces. Ask God to remind you of them. If you are reading this and I have the honor of being in a church body with you, you are one of my sweet graces. Thank you for swimming with me and being a zinnia in my church story.