Tag Archive | Christian community

The Gift of Presence

men silhouette in the fogI had a rough week. This week we moved our belongings into a storage unit, ourselves and two dogs into my son’s house (an investment that needs a lot of work he is just beginning to tackle), and we finalized the sale of our house.

The problem was that my husband woke up at one in the morning on moving day with an optical migraine. Actually, it was a stomach bug, which we found out a couple days later when I got it, but it presented as a migraine with vomiting and blinding pain. We were a little behind in the packing, but we had plenty of time to do it before the movers came. Except, of course, that he was asleep or being sick, and I was alone. (It was also my birthday, which just allowed me to feel whinier and sorrier for myself than I should have.)

The week didn’t improve much after that day. We were behind in everything, because my husband continued to feel terrible, and then I got sick, too. Being a diabetic, I don’t handle stomach bugs well, and I ended up in the hospital for a few hours for some IV fluids. We were both exhausted.

My church jumped in to help. We have a contractor in our body, and he helped us with a last-minute repair we needed to finish before closing. And the church also paid for a maid service to do the final cleaning, since neither my husband nor I had the energy to do that ourselves.

Now, here’s where this blog needs to tread lightly, because I’m about to complain. Sort of. I was ecstatic about the help offered to us last week. I was. We had a need, and they jumped in and solved the problem. However, I had another need, and that one went unmet. Not because of any deficiency in my church, but because this is the culture we live in.

You see, the day we moved, I wasn’t ready. My husband wasn’t around to help me make the final decisions of what to store and what to take to my son’s house. I felt utterly alone. And the entire time, I kept hoping God would send someone to make it better. I needed the physical presence of a human body to tell me, in an audible voice, that it was all going to be okay.

That body never arrived. For the entire week, when I went back to the house to pack or went to the storage unit, I did it alone. The big reason for this was that I never asked. I asked for help, and some people did offer to come and help, only the maid service was paid for and took care of the physical help I needed. Nobody offered to come and be emotional support, and I didn’t know how to ask for that, especially while we were healing from a crazy contagious stomach bug. I probably should have accepted the offers for help and simply used the time to sit and talk and refresh at a nearby coffee shop. But I never quite got the courage to say I’m alone and I just sold my house and my husband is sick and I’m not sure I did the right thing and I need a body to show up and help me not go crazy this week.

Many years ago, I lost a baby. It was a different time, when more women stayed home and community had different meaning. At one point, a friend simply sat on the bed with me and talked for hours, and another one brought a bucket and cleaners and cleaned my house. I had no idea how vital both of them were to my healing. And in my head, I think I wanted to experience something similar last week. But I don’t have that kind of support system now. It’s a different world, and I haven’t been careful about creating a net in this world.

I was feeling guilty about this desire for emotional support, because people did help me. The cleaning service was a life saver. But that deeper need, the need not to feel alone… Yeah. And I can say this without feeling too bad, because I know that, had the tables been turned, I wouldn’t have shown up, either. We were sick with something that turned out to be super contagious. My son and son-in-law moved us on their own time, and the only time they had was a Sunday morning, when I should have been in church, so my community was in worship and had no idea I was a wreck at home.  My friends have jobs or small children. Not like everyone can simply drop everything and show up to hold my hand because I’m feeling a little stress about a move–something that was my crazy idea to start with.

I was feeling guilty about my desire until I started to think about the book of Acts. Several times Paul thanks a church for sending someone to strengthen him. The financial gifts from the churches were delivered by human bodies who then offered comfort and friendship. Physical human companionship is valuable, even here in the digital age when we can handle almost every task without ever having a face-to-face human encounter.

This isn’t meant to be a complaint about the people in my life. Instead, it was an eye opener for me. I work from home writing and teaching my son. I have a very relaxed schedule. If someone is in need, I have very few excuses not to show up. And now I realize just how vital simple presence can be. So, I need to be more open to the promptings of the Spirit to get in the car and physically show up when someone might need comfort and friendship. Not everyone has a schedule that lets them do that. And being the backward person that I am, I’m not completely thrilled to write this, because I easily convince myself I can’t help, that I would be a burden, that I have nothing to offer. It is much more comfortable to make excuses and stay home than it is to show up.

It was a hard lesson to learn. And I’m not excited that I learned it. But if I’m going to love the people God put in my life, that means sometimes I have to sacrifice what’s comfortable and simply show up and let the Spirit use me in whatever ways He wants. Because nobody in the body of Christ should ever feel completely alone.

 

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The War for the Intimate

file0001833018783I was glancing through a book catalog last week, a Christian book catalog, and it got me thinking. Many, many of the books were about a relationship with God. With Jesus. With the Holy Spirit. Reading the descriptions to the books, I found myself drawn in. I wanted to read all of them. I wanted what they promised. And since there are so many out there, I suspect I’m not the only one. There seems to be a longing in our culture for more, and I’m not sure where it comes from or how to quench it.

Every one of those books promised a more intimate relationship with God. Closer walks. Getting to know God more personally and having Him impact my life more fully. Lessons in prayer, again with the goal of getting closer to God. All of them suggest we are too far from God and can have an amazingly close connection with him, and all of them have ideas on how to go about this.

This post isn’t to criticize those books. I don’t have anything bad to say about them. They are right. I long for more when it comes to God. I think secretly many of us wonder why our prayers don’t look like prayers of old–how often have you prayed a dead man alive? Prayed for the beginning or end of a drought? Seen blind men healed and lame men walk? How often have you felt a closeness to Jesus like the apostles did, where He laughed in your midst, told you parables, sat with you over dinner?  Or even the relationship the Israelites had with God–have you wondered which way to go and followed a pillar of fire? Has your church filled with darkness while God’s Spirit consecrates it?

Why haven’t we? Why this longing for more and the inability to find more? I want those things. I want following Jesus to be easier. I find that I forget. I wake up and forget that I love God, that he’s central to my life, that I am loved with the most selfless, amazing love in the universe. How can I do that?

I ask for fish, and sometimes it feels like I get stones. I trust God for something, and I feel like I have the faith and the knowledge to ask wisely, to ask for something God surely desires in his heart, too, but the dead don’t rise. The broken don’t heal. What is wrong with my prayers?

I look for direction for my ministries, my relationships, my marriage, and instead of having a pillar of fire to lead my way, I stand in a drying plain with no landmarks in any direction. Where is the path? I open the Word to light my way, and yet I stand in darkness. Where is the lamp to guide my footsteps?

I have such great plans. Reading plans. Prayer plans. I attend conferences and workshops and hope to use the energy of those mountaintop experiences to develop habits that last. I want to love God without reservation. I do, with all my heart. And yet, slowly but surely, I slide back into some halfway world where God is peripheral. I skip a day of reading. Then I skip two. I pray for ten minutes. Then five. I look with longing at books about close walks with God and wonder what makes those people so special that they can be close while I feel like I’m drifting away in an ocean of distraction.

I suspect my biggest problem is that I forget I’m in battle. And wow, our enemy is special. He’s ancient. He’s smart. He’s cunning. And I don’t prepare to fight. I look at the books in the catalog and think I can find some magical way to slay the enemy once for all. But I can’t. I battle every single day. Except days when I don’t. And then I slide.

I wonder what would happen if my Christian friends and I remembered, every day, that today we were going to battle. If I peeked around every building and made every turn expecting to be ambushed. If I hid my valuables and protected them expecting someone to snatch them away. If our conversations always included new ways to fight, new weapons, stories of battlefield victories and defeats meant to prepare and warn one another about the fights ahead.

I want to be close to Jesus, but I want it simple and light. Yet my marriage isn’t simple and light. My friendships take work, too. And this relationship with Jesus–it is a thing under fire unlike any other relationship. Every moment of the day, it’s under fire. I don’t prepare for that. My friends don’t prepare for that. We forget to be soldiers. Soldiers need to be ready. Always on guard. Always a struggle. They lose friends. They need rest sometimes, where someone else holds the gun while they grab some sleep in the bottom of the foxhole. They cover each other, and they strategize. Battle is their life, because forgetting that gets them killed.

And in the end, if they are diligent and wise, they take the enemy down.

Jesus can be close. Those books aren’t wrong. Of course I can have a close relationship with Him. It’s what He wants most. But I think I have to embrace the battle required to hold onto it here. That relationship doesn’t grow easily, but it is easily snatched away if I’m not careful. The Holy Spirit is the commander, and I need to listen for his commands and never hesitate when He gives a battle cry. I hesitate. I want Psalm 23, where I can lounge by the stream. But more often than not, I’m in Ephesians in a room filled with battle gear. Only I don’t realize it, and I walk out on a deadly field practically naked and wonder why I can’t seem to win the skirmishes.

Today, whatever happens, I need to read the Word. Pray. Fight the powers of darkness. Jesus meets me there with a hug and a smile. With Him victory is guaranteed, and that victory is sweet indeed. But it never comes easy, and I think I set myself up for failure if I think it ever will in this life.

Rescuing Family

rescuing familyI have rewritten this post several times now. It’s a plea, a call for help, and a risk. Because, you see, I don’t love like Jesus loved. He looked at people who wanted to kill him, and he loved them. He looked at a disobedient nation, and he loved it. Seems to me he loved people pretty equally.  And I don’t.

Confession: I want my people–my children, my spouse, my family, my friends–to come to a saving knowledge of Jesus more than I want anyone else to come to that same knowledge. I will sacrifice more, pray more, and plead more for those people than for strangers. I might give up on strangers if they deny Christ. But I will never give up on the people God has given me.

I suspect that’s true for all of us. And it makes sense. None of us can invest in everyone. Even missionaries in distant communities only live in a single community at once. A person who invests his life in a tribe in South America can’t also give his life to a village in Asia. We all invest more in some than others. Jesus was the same, pouring himself into a few men and not everyone. So maybe I shouldn’t feel bad about this.

God has given me a church family. I hope he’s given you one, too. And although I believe the Spirit opens hearts and draws people and ultimately saves a soul, I believe He does it through people. And likely He will win my people through me or other people I know.

Because I have people in my life, people I love, who don’t know God. Some have never known. Some are wandering. I’m willing to bet everyone in every church is the same. We have people who mean the world to us, and they haven’t answered the call to live for Jesus, and our hearts shatter into a zillion pieces with every prayer, every hope, every conversation. We can only do so much, pray so much, and love so much, and sometimes it doesn’t seem to change a thing.

When someone who isn’t walking with God agrees to attend church with you, how do you feel? Is there hope? Do you pray that that person will be changed, that the Spirit will sweep over your person during worship, during songs, during  fellowship? I do. It’s what I want more than anything else, that a person I love who walks into a worship service with me will walk out new.

So, here’s the thing. Here’s where I keep deleting and starting over. Church body, this part of the post is for you. For any church body. Every church body. It’s normal to greet strangers. Every church I know greets strangers, surrounding them with love, asking them questions, hoping they will return, praying they will feel loved and sense the Spirit in our midst. But how do we do with the not-so-strangers? The adult children who walk in with parents. The siblings who appear only on holidays. The parents who come only for a grandchild’s baptism.  How hard do we work to love those people?

I hate to admit this, because it’s a heartbreaking truth, but not all of my children are pursuing God at the moment, not with any fervor. Some are questioning and wandering. They know the truth, but they haven’t claimed it yet. They weren’t loved well by other bodies, and now they hesitate to enter a body again. And I have done all I can do. I have said all I can say. Every now and then these children agree to attend church with me. And I pray and hope every single time that this time the body will gather round them. Perhaps this time they will meet a kindred soul and develop a friendship that will ultimately lead them back to the fold. Maybe someone will speak the words to soften their hearts and pierce their armor and remind them of the truths of eternal life. I hope someone will be the lifeline to lead them home in a way I haven’t been able to do. Yet often we walk in and out and nobody says a word to them.

When I bring my people into the body, I’m calling in the cavalry to surround them, to speak to them of love and truth, to be God’s hands and feet. This is a battle and a rescue, and I need help. I am not, as the commercials say, an army of one. God never meant for me to be that.

A few weeks ago another mother of a young adult son approached and asked me if we could introduce my son to her son. She felt they might have some common ground. And the two young men talked a long time. I realized I need to do this, both search out people who might have common ground with the guests I bring into the church as well as seek out other people’s guests. Because I am the cavalry, too. Perhaps someone will bring a daughter or friend or sister who needs me, something only I can give. Maybe the Spirit wants me to be the one to head up the rescue of someone else’s special person. Someone might have shed as many tears over her people as I have over mine, and God’s answer to her tears is ME. It sounds unbelievable, but maybe it’s true. Maybe that’s why each particular group of believers is together, because we have what it takes to rescue each other’s people as well as reach the world where we live.

We want to rescue the world. That’s a perfectly good thing to want. But more personally, we want to rescue our own. And if I worship with you, your people are my people. Your family is my family. Your tears and fears and hopes–they’re mine, too. So here’s my promise. I will help you rescue those you love. I hope you’ll help me rescue those I love. If I don’t worship with you, I hope you will make and keep such promises to your own bodies about your own people. Between all of us, we can reach many, many souls.

We need to love each other well. Have each other’s backs. Speak the words of the Spirit to each other’s people. And not let the enemy carry away anyone we care about if there’s anything we can do to stop it.

 

 

The Dilemma of Helpfulness

dilemma of helpfulnessThis week at the grocery store, I noticed a mom who seemed to be in trouble. She had a child strapped to her chest, crying, and a little one underfoot she was trying to corral with her legs. With one hand she was tossing groceries from the cart to the bagging table; with the other patting the tired baby. All of this was done with a lot of speed, and she didn’t look happy.

I offered to help her bag. She made it clear that my offer was not acceptable, that she was fine, that even though I might have needed help when my children were little, she did not.

It hurt. In my attempt to help her, I had offended and upset her. All kinds of thoughts went through my head. Was it the way I asked? Did I somehow express that I thought she was failing? Did I break some sort of taboo by noticing her distress? I am not good at social cues, so there was a good chance I did something wrong by even asking.

It was a simple exchange. Took less than a minute, but for the rest of the day I felt dark and sad, like I’d failed. What you need to understand is that I’m not comfortable with people. I have been trying hard to be loving and compassionate toward people, because it doesn’t come naturally to me. People scare me. They upset me. I’m supposed to love them, but I don’t. Sometimes I don’t even like them. But I’ve been praying for eyes to see them as Jesus does, worthy of love and compassion regardless of circumstance. I want to be sweet and kind, but it’s hard to get past fears and hurts to do it. I’ve had people be really unkind to me, and so I was stepping hugely outside my comfort zone even to approach this woman. And I hit unkindness again.

Eventually I had to let myself off the hook. People in the world aren’t especially kind. I knew my intention was simply to help her get home faster so her tired baby could rest or eat or play. That was it. If she chose to get upset, that was on her.

Without realizing it, sometimes we do this in the church. I bet all of us remember moments when someone in our church bodies offered to help us with something, and we quickly told them No, I’m fine. I don’t need anything. I don’t want to put you out.

It hurts, doesn’t it? Makes you question asking again? Makes you wonder what value you have if simple offers of help are turned away?

Long ago I knew a woman who felt her calling was to help people in church. If a problem arose, she was the first to offer food, counsel, whatever was necessary. But then when life went back to normal, she wasn’t around. She wasn’t developing friendships or relationships; she was simply filling needs.

This same woman refused to accept help. I invited her to a cookie exchange. She said she didn’t have time to bake cookies. I explained that I had overbaked. I had a ton of cookies at my house. (This was in my pre-diabetes years.) She insisted it was unfair to eat my cookies and would not accept my offer. In the end, I had to throw them away. They went stale before anyone got to them. And we didn’t get her company at the exchange.

After that day, I didn’t accept help from that woman again. Bearing burdens needs to be a two-way street. God didn’t tell us to help one another to show the world we are good people. We’re not doing it to the check the Obedience or Good Deeds boxes in our spiritual checklist. He did it because we need to be intimate. We need to have friendships and relationships. Life is hard. The world is mean. We need to have people around us who don’t only help us in time of need but also love us in times of good and joy. It isn’t about tasks done; it’s about hearts woven together in an unbreakable tapestry.

I call people like my old friend the foul-weather friends. The lady at the grocery store turned around and offered her cart to someone when she left the store. She wanted to be kind to strangers, but it offended her to accept kindness. That was weakness. I think we do that in church, too. Many of us jump to help, but we don’t accept help. We don’t want to be vulnerable. We pat ourselves on the back for doing a good deed and forget about anything deeper.

Again, I’m working on this. I’m trying to be helpful, but I also want to build friendships and relationships. I’m the kind of person who could live on a deserted island for a decade before I started talking to volleyballs, but God wants me to interact, so I’m trying to interact. It’s not easy. It’s not easy for any of us. Our society is about independence. Our society isn’t God’s society, and that’s clearer every day.

If someone offers to help you, maybe it’s not a sign of weakness to accept. Maybe it’s as much part of being a good disciple of Christ as offering. Maybe that help won’t only aid your life, but it will build up the one who offered. It’s a two-way street. The world is rough, and we are called to comfort each other, laugh with each other, enjoy each other, weep with each other, and walk each other to Heaven’s doors.

 

 

 

 

 

The Bride on Her Own Terms

bride on her own termsI read an article recently about young people turning from church and pursuing God alone. They don’t trust the Bible. They don’t trust the church. They want to find a spirituality that’s strictly individual and doesn’t ask for more than they want to give. They want a spiritual life fully on their terms, and they have no patience with people who get in their way or inconvenience them.

I don’t think young people are alone in this. Spiritual community isn’t easy, because community in general isn’t easy. We don’t live in a culture where community is a thing, so in the church it feels forced and strange and unnatural.

I attend a church with very few programs. If I’m going to live in community with my worship family, I have to do it on my own. I have to search out the pregnant mom and offer her a meal. There is no meal committee to make it happen. If someone needs help moving furniture, someone has to learn it the old fashioned way, through talking and relationship. There is no moving committee.

We do have a couple programs. A simple children’s program, although nothing for older kids. As of a couple days ago, my son is the only high school student in our church, so I tease him about having youth group when he’s hanging out alone. We have teams to get things done, like setting up the worship space (we meet in a building with multiple uses) or praying during worship. But even there, there’s a lot of freedom as to how we interact.

In other words, we have to decide to live in community and then do it. Nobody’s going to make it easier. Programs are fine, as long as they don’t become a substitute for community, but I’ve discovered I kind of like the informality of a non-programmed church. It means when someone in the body shows me love, it’s spontaneous, not scripted. It’s heartfelt. Often it’s creative and out of the blue. No, we don’t always do it well. We still get caught up in the busyness of our individual lives and miss huge needs in our corporate life, but we’re working on it. Community is happening.

I spent some time in Mexico, and a tiny body of believers there met every night in someone’s house. Every night. Can you imagine? Community completely trumped individual, independent spirituality. They were all connected and united. They learned and lived and died as a group. Part of it had to do with this being a small village that already understood community. They lived it daily, working together to survive. But here, community is foreign, so we struggle to live as a body, since our spiritual life is the only place we do it.

A body. Yeah, Jesus used that term, didn’t he? I feel like we use the word without thinking about it. Each us of want to be a whole body. Our (MY!) math is Me+God=Healthy spiritual life.  But God says we each have a role, and without some of us, the whole thing is broken. God’s math is this: God+me+you+you+you+you…=healthy spiritual life. We rely on each other. God didn’t give any of us all the answers (not even the super-rich authors and megachurch pastors who make the news. Yep, they need you and me. We all need each other.). He did that on purpose. For some reason, from the beginning, he wanted us in groups. Families. Churches. Nations. He made us to need groups.

This is coming from an introvert who sometimes has words with God about this whole group thing. Trust me, I’d like to be a whole body. Some days I want nothing to do with community. I want Christianity on my terms, and my terms include words like solitude and peace and convenience. Which are fine sometimes. But his terms include words like body, sacrifice, and unity. It can be rough.

What if Jesus had used our logic on earth? First, he and God had a really good thing going. Morning prayers, sinlessness–it was good. What if Jesus had looked at the Israelites–and everyone else– and said Wow. These sinners are dampening my spiritual fervor. God loves a bunch of irritating people. They bring me down. Plus, I hate all the rituals and commandments. I’m just going to head back to God and forget this whole sacrifice thing. This isn’t about them. It’s just me and God. And we’re good.

The crucifixion wouldn’t have happened, because that’s as far from individual spirituality as possible. But Jesus lived in community. He lived for community. He was here to rescue that community, clean it up, build it up, and then offer it to God. A single bride. A single body.

I hope the young people realize individual spirituality needs to be lived out in a body. I hope all of us realize we aren’t our own, myself included. Jesus loves us each as individuals, sure. But he didn’t mean for us to live our spiritual lives that way. We have to put aside all the frustrations of dealing with people–just like he did–and find community again. On his terms.

It’s not easy. Or at least it isn’t for me. In this culture it’s awkward and takes thought and work. It means  rearranging life to accommodate the needs that arise within the body. Time. Patience. But Jesus says it’s worth it. He wants to present his beautiful bride to God.  One single bride. I look forward to that wedding day, and that means I have to be part of that beautiful bride’s body.

 

The Elusive Christian Community

Community blogIf you’ve been in a church for any length of time, you’ve watched the powers that be wrestle with community.  Personally, I’ve been part of Life Groups, Community Groups, Women’s Groups, Homeschool Groups, and a number of other programs designed to unite us into communities.   I’ve seen them divided by life stages, educational preference, sex, and more.   The biggest common factor is that a couple years down the road someone throws up his/her hands in despair and tries a new program of community.

Not to say we shouldn’t try.  The Bible is filled with commandments about unity, bearing burdens, praying together, eating together, sharing belongings, and otherwise being in community.  It sounds so simple–we are all part of this invisible kingdom.  In a way, it’s us against the world.  That united purpose should create some sort of natural community, right?  So why is it so hard to do that? Continue reading