A Place to Practice

I remember when I was in my teen years, sitting in church, and feeling great discomfort as the pastor asked if anyone wanted to give their “testimony”.  I should have a testimony, I thought. Other people have testimonies, and they sound so glowing and spiritual. I would scramble to think of something to say and hope that the time allotted would be done before I got myself together to volunteer.  And then I wouldn’t think about it again, until the next uncomfortable time, when I would also not be ready again. So went my first uncomfortable church experiences.

Since then, I am happy to report, I’ve discovered a new way to deal with discomfort in church (other than staying away from church – not the best solution). This is partly due to training I’ve had in Bible Study Fellowship, where they taught me to think about my own spiritual experiences, beliefs, and even feelings ahead of time.  We have a somewhat “churchy” language when we call it a testimony, but it really is an explanation of what I experience, believe and feel about my relationship with God.  And how odd was it that I had never realized I could think about those things ahead of time?

 The last two weeks in church, the pastor has offered an opportunity to practice being vocal about our relationship with God.  Last week he asked for examples of God’s faithfulness during the week. This week he asked what thanks we had for God.  Such general questions are great nudges for us to practice speaking about things that are important to us. Church gives us opportunities and a safe place to practice in order that we grow and improve. Speaking these things gets easier the more we do it.

In this day of TED talks and podcasts, people are all over the place, talking about what is important to them. Not everyone is meant to be a public speaker, but it looks to me like God gave most of us mouths and the ability to speak. He is faithful to us, blesses us with things to be thankful for. Every week he makes it possible for us to be back in church in front of a friendly, compassionate audience of friends and neighbors. I should be the first on my feet. That’s why I am.

Being first up is my philosophy of the last few years. It really cuts down on anxiety, vacillating on whether to speak or not, those moments of racing pulse and stage fright. I don’t always know exactly what I’m going to say, and sometimes I say something a bit strange and wish I’d said it differently. But overall, the practice has been worth it.  The Bible says that when we are brought before authorities to answer for our faith, that God will give us words to say. Somehow, I don’t think it’s saying that should be the first time we’ve ever opened our mouths.

I’m just sayin’ this because I know others have this same discomfort at times and I want to encourage, if this is you. Think of something to thank God for each day, and be ready to say it.  It’s really that easy.

What is a Church?

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I could also call these thoughts “My Struggle with the Bride of Christ”.

I would like to say that the church is a group of believers that show the world around them what God’s love is like. It’s a group of people doing loving things that people shouldn’t be able to do, in fact can’t do, without God doing those things through them. God’s true church is loved by each individual in it, and in turn, the church has a selfless love for each individual belonging to it. I’m wondering if that’s possible this side of heaven…

I’ve been thinking about heaven, and about the church, a lot lately. Tonight I couldn’t get to sleep for the thoughts that kept troubling me.  Heaven, I thought, will be a place where I won’t have to wonder if I’m in the right place.  All around me will be a community of believers with no doubt who they’re worshiping and no disconnect with those they’ve come to know and love.

I have been blessed with a pretty close family all my life. We have significant differences but we are bonded together, having the same parents, the same close proximity to each other during our formative years. We sat alongside each other at the table, in the car, at church. We did life together. It wasn’t necessarily our choice, but it made sense and it was good. We’re grown now and our lives are less connected, but in our heads and hearts, we are still family. We make efforts to spend time together. We have grown to love each other. Where else can we go for that sense of who we are and how we came to be?

I think I want my church to be like my family. I want my church to be the place I belong because people know me there.

I try to imagine the first Christian churches, like the one in Philippi. We’ve been hearing sermons about those people, the Philippians, in the church I attend. In Philippi, a city in biblical times, some very unlikely first converts were drawn together by a God, actually a spiritual parent, who suddenly gave them a chance to know their life’s purpose. A wealthy business woman (with a house big enough to share with other believers), a Roman policeman and his family, and a formerly demon possessed slave girl were suddenly bonded by love for that spiritual parent. They started spending time together as they learned. They probably ate together, went places together and came to know each other’s stories as they talked. They had to have had some pretty divergent viewpoints, but there wasn’t another church just a few miles away that was more “their kind of church”.  They were the only church, until such a time when church growth separated them into communities based on locale. Even then, they probably kept in touch.

So that’s what a community is really – people who live next to each other, doing and sharing life. I wonder if the reason Christian believers don’t always do church well is because they don’t do community well either. That’s what I’m struggling with. I don’t do community well, not even in my own physical community. I share a driveway with people living in five other houses and rarely do we connect over anything. I know their names, but I guarantee, if they moved away I wouldn’t know where or why, or even care. We haven’t spent time together and are only bonded by… a driveway, I guess. Our cars and our preferences allow us to shop in different places, work in different places, be entertained by different things.

And although some people try to make it different, our churches are very similar to our poorly connected communities. When I live half an hour’s drive from the church I attend, it’s pretty safe to say I’m not doing life next to anyone else from church.

It’s a struggle to know and be known. And I think God is going to get tired of me not doing it.

God can arrange times when transportation isn’t easy, when choices are few, when knowing and working with the neighbor next door is a matter of life or death for me. He will do that if that’s what it takes to teach me to love my neighbor.  It’s probably so important to learn to love and get along because I will have to do it, like forever.  “Like forever” is my description of eternity. And although, I’m not going to attempt to give a description of heaven, I think it will be a place where I don’t have to wonder if I belong and I probably won’t be driving 20 miles to church either.  Just sayin’…

 

Sitting in it…

Today in church was awkward.  Not that it hasn’t been before.  I often am hit with this feeling of being an invisible sponge-like being, hoping to pick up on whatever God has for me, whatever I have asked him for. I have friends there, good friends actually, but I’m gone frequently and nobody really knows if/where I belong in the faith community.

I appreciate being able to sing, to listen, to enjoy church in a way that leaves me free of feeling critical, disappointed and upset. I go to a good church. But, wow, when I feel awkward it’s difficult. I question my presence there. I feel alone. Isolated. It’s so easy to sing the last song, pick up my stuff, and be gone.  No one stops me.

God stops me. I can’t get past the part where “the church” is a major player in the story. SHE’S THE BRIDE AT THE WEDDING (excuse the all caps). I must not only try to identify with her, I must try to be her. I have a clear picture of what that “church” means – it’s not a denomination, a particular group, a specific behavior or costume. But it’s real. I find evidence of it across the board, in different cultures, in unlikely places, at odd times, the invisible church is there. identified by mutual love of Jesus (THE GROOM, excuse the all caps).

Anyway, today being one of the awkward days, I sat in it. I know the devil (who wants to be a major player but doesn’t get to) would have me feel estranged in that environment and to wallow in the feeling and draw conclusions from it. Feeling awkward is not fatal. It can happen to me and I survive. I can fight back and seek out someone else who looks awkward and persist in conversation with them until we’ve both felt included in something bigger than ourselves. We’ve made small steps toward community.

I give the “feeling” of discomfort up to God, who reminds me that feelings are fickle. Next week I might feel incredibly part of it all, connected to everyone. Church is complicated. Church is necessary. Church is part of a bigger plan and I don’t always “get it”. But I will sit here, learning, until I do. But today was awkward, just sayin’…

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