Monday, August 5, 2013

Accepting the Sidelines

(or "The Night I Got Over Myself. Again.")

“The close confinement of a pit exhausts us with the endless echo of self-absorption.” 
~ Beth Moore

We’d approached these familiar church doors many a Sunday morning. Almost 16 years ago, we walked through them for the first time as a young married couple from the north looking to make our home in the south. And we did. Because although the doors open wide to a campus that many find intimidating, we soon found an inviting nook in the vast array and called it home.

We enjoyed those carefree years as young marrieds, actively partaking in all the small group parties, Bible studies, you name it. The only reason we missed anything was because we couldn’t stay put long, regularly hitting the road and the air to visit out-of-state friends and family. Our lifestyle was an active one, and we liked it that way.

After a year or two of being nestled into the warm space of our small group, our hearts were stirred to plug in even more. And the Lord gave us the opportunity to start a new small group with dear friends at our church for newly married couples. Seriously newly marrieds! We’re talkin’ – folks just back from their honeymoon. What a privilege to be a part of that sacred season in their lives.

Fast forward a few years when my husband had the privilege of serving as a deacon, then I had the privilege of helping to lead a women’s summer Bible study. Our list of involvement goes on, but my point is this:
We were active.
We were connected.
And that was just the way we liked it.

But then life took some twists and turns. And as a result, my stride's taken quite a toll since those days of carefree. Because as I approach those same doors, I’ve had Sunday mornings when it’s been physically challenging just to walk through them, let alone be actively plugged in to church life. So it’s been years since I’ve been in organized ministry, or even participated in an organized event. Because I’m doing well if I can muster the stamina to do all that’s required simply to show up on a Sunday morning.
Meanwhile, church life continues on all around me. Without me. 

And this health adventure hasn’t just impacted my physical frame. My mental, emotional, and spiritual gaits have also become fragile from the harsh winds of life. My journey through chronic illness has brought intense storms to the deepest recesses of my being, and it’s changed me. And the loss of life as we knew it with our church family has been hard to swallow. 

Let me explain a bit further. Whenever you haven’t seen somebody for a considerably long time, there’s an enthusiastic reunion, right? And the typical catch-up questions come naturally. Then on the opposite side of the spectrum, when you see somebody frequently, like every Sunday morning, you get to go beyond those surface questions to dig into the day-to-day grind, and walk through life with them. But my husband and I, we’re in this awkward frequency of the in between. We’re not seeing these folks regularly. But it’s not like it’s been 5-10 years since we’ve seen them, either. In reality, our circumstances have left us doing all the things you’re NOT supposed to do if you want to experience close community:
We show up inconsistently on Sunday mornings. (Sometimes as a couple, but more times one without the other.)
We go into the worship center. We worship. We go out. 
No small groups. No Bible studies. No outreach events. 
No more relating than cordial Sunday morning smiles. 

It’s an unhealthy pattern that leaves longing hearts lonely and unfulfilled. Yet sadly, it’s a pretty common pattern in churches, so we’re not a total anomaly. But in our case, we know better. And we want better. We’re willing to do what it takes to be connected, but our circumstances inhibit us. Our hearts LONG to serve and plug in again. We’re just not physically able to. And that's been a painful place to live.

That particular evening, I approached those now-awkward church doors yet again. My footsteps carrying the imprints of one who’s spent the last several years wrestling her way through pain and loss, through life. And that dreaded in-between awkwardness started to settle in the closer I got to the doors. But the next step held something different. Because in that step, He whispered to me:
“Can you accept it here?” 

Can I accept it here . . .

On the sidelines.

In this awkward and isolating in between.

Can I accept this disconnected place I’m in?
And make the most of it. 

 The moments between His question and my entrance were so brief that I didn’t even have time to consciously respond before I was through the doors and swept into the flow of church goers.

Yet His question alone empowered me. Because this time when I walked through those doors, the awkwardness was replaced with confidence. I was no longer focusing on my disconnectedness; I was focused on embracing the brief moments that I HAD with these people. And wanting to taste the sweetness of being a blessing to them – even from the social sidelines. 

My experience that evening at church was entirely different.
Because rather than throw out a fake hi,
I reached out and offered an embrace. 
Rather than avoid eye contact to dodge the awkward shallow,
I called out her name. 
Rather than turn away after the obligatory hellos,
I turned back to reengage and encourage. 
Rather than stay quiet in my seat before the program started,
I introduced myself. 
And rather than keep that restroom tunnel-vision stare straight down at my hand washing for fear of the casual acquaintance standing next to me not remembering me after all these years, 
I looked up. 
I took a risk.
I initiated conversation.
[Turns out she remembered me, too.]

Rather than fixating on being a part of community, I got over myself. And experienced a taste of community when I did. 

A sweet embrace.
The laughter of grace.
The delight of relational reconnections.
The blessing of a new friend.

All rich treasures I would have missed had my focus remained on community – instead of on Jesus. 

That getting over the awkwardness, getting over myself at church, wasn’t anything I pursued. Nothing I’d been praying about. Not a conscious mental shift I made that evening. It was simply another miraculous moment when His grace entered my reality to bring about the change my heart and mind desperately needed.

And sure, it was different from the strong pulse of community we’re used to being a part of. But it was okay. I was okay. I was content with the less than ideal. Content to accept the sidelines.

With an overflow of grace, God brought my self-centric mind back to what church is all about taking my eyes off myself, and turning them onto Jesus.

[Psst! Don’t look now, but this little kite seems to be wrestling a little less, and resting a bit more these days. Well . . . at least THIS day!]

Image courtesy of charamelody


  1. Another blog god had me stumble upon that met me right at my struggle that I am dealing with right now. I am on the sidelines as well and it makes me feel like I'm not living up to my potential but god has whispered here and there that this is one of the valleys of change that is building strength and endurance in me

    1. i sure am glad God had you stumble upon us here, friend. and those nagging thoughts about not living up to your potential? can i ever RELATE! my journey on the sidelines has been as much of a journey about my personal identity as it's been about my health. likely far, far more. in a world that believes that value is wrapped up in productivity and contribution, i'm constantly having to remind myself that my value has nothing to do with what i do or don't do, but everything to do with who Jesus is & what He's done for me.

      it is finished. and His grace is sufficient.
      even for all this.

  2. Whoa dudette!

    I am in the InCourage Chronic Illness group and saw you posted this. I came here expecting some kind of platitude about accepting our limitations and blah blah.

    But you described exactly how I had been feeling. In 2010, my life changed with a diagnosis of breast cancer. My church ministered to me at that time. But over the next few years, there was the odd surgery here and there. Problems cropped up and then over the winter I was physically miserable. I was diagnosed with an auto-immune type of arthritis. And I felt just like you wrote.

    It would be weeks between trips to church. Then there were times I made it but I was in such pain I didn't want to be social. And the church grew. Without me in in the middle of it. So many new faces and I didn't have the energy to get to know them.

    I was put on treatment and started feeling better. My church leadership did an amazing thing for me. They learned that one reason I got up and paced the back of our sanctuary was because our church chairs were too uncomfortable for me. Before the sermon had started I was fidgeting from pain in the back and up I got moving from one seat to the next trying to find a place to be comfortable. The pastor spoke to me about it and imagine my pleasant surprise one Sunday to have them take me to a lovely recliner, installed on the outside of the front row! I was teary through the whole service because they cared to make me more comfortable, even if it didn't match the decor of the room!

    As I read about your changes in how you dealt with people I saw those things in me. But I did't register them like you did. I knew I was feeling better so I was coming out a little more...making more effort. Your blog post was a salve to my heart because I find I wasn't the only one struggling with this change in my life. I will be visiting more often!

    1. i'm so encouraged to hear that the Lord loved on you through this piece, tina. thx so much for taking the time to comment -- i'm so blessed by all you shared. (and 2010 was the year that life took its turn for me as well.)

      how i wish i could walk up to the person who had the recliner idea and give them a big hug. "because they cared to make me more comfortable, even if it didn't match the decor of the room!" talk about gospel community! reaching out in sacrificial love to invest in another's well-being -- even if it doesn't look "pretty."
      LOVE it!!
      (and clearly, there's more true beauty in that worship center WITH the recliner than without it.)

      such a treat to have you visit, & join the journey.

      your friend in the sidelines,

  3. Thank you for your perspective here. I have reached the point that it's just easier to stay home than make the effort to get through those doors. During the week i think about going to church and that I will do it. But come Sunday it's just too much effort to get out of bed on time and I struggle big time mentally and physically over it. I think I've gotten somewhat stuck in a rut. I needed to hear this encouragement.

    1. thanks for your transparency, lizzy. i know that rut. and it muddies the crummy waters when the lines are so blurred between the mental aspect of the struggle and the physical aspect of it.

      because if it were exclusively a physical challenge, i'd remind myself to receive His grace. and if it were exclusively a mental rut, i'd seek to surrender my thoughts to His authority and get over myself (& go!). but when i've been in that rut, it's oftentimes a hazy combination of both my body & mind working against me. and in my particular health puzzle, i pretty much need my body's cooperation to position my mind for right processing & decision-making.

      not that He can't entirely trump it all.
      it's just plain MESSY is all!

  4. Thank you...something to remember when I go to church, seeking a new one to be part of ...where I, as a single older woman with health and economic challenges, still recovering from an abusive relationship, and in school ambitious and working on having a career, can hope to be involved and meet friends, real sisters in the Lord, who are seeking companionship and some one to go to the beach with or to coffee or to a film.

    1. you're more than welcome. and i hope your church search leads you to a place where your love for Him grows deeper, your love for others grows wider, and your understanding of His grace and goodness keeps your spirit in a constant stream of worship all week long.


  5. Tanya... You've given me a lot to think about and turn over with this. You are a wonderful blessing. Thank you for sharing what He's done.

    1. well i've been anxious to share it here, so i'm encouraged that His words nudged your heart as well.

      it's a privilege to journey with you, friend.

  6. Tanya, thank you for your blessing of a blog. I am interested in reprinting this at our RestMinistries site with your permission. I know it would speak to many people and we can send some people your way. I also just pinned your site on our Pinterest board :) It's always a joy to connect with others who are living w/ illness and find their faith in God and His strength.

    1. lisa, i would be honored. just let me know if there's anything you need from me.

      i am so grateful to have discovered your ministry recently. the topics you share are so relevant to both the emotional and the practical aspects of the invisible illness journey. and the warm culture of transparency echoes my heartbeat as well.

      thanks again for the opportunity,

  7. Tanya, I'm chiming in a long time after the fact. Truth is, I think of you often while wishing the world would stop for a moment. Thank you for the peek into your heart. Everything you said made sense to me. Not from a physical perspective but from an emotional/mental one. After a period of hurts, it was that warm, soft grace that lingered in the air at my home church that caused me to simply cry every time i went through it's doors for about 6 months. It is during those times that just the simplest interactions that encourage can make the difference in someone's day and even direction for the continuing through that season they are walking. For me it was a "Hi, Sweetie!"
    Thanks for this. love you.

  8. I miss your posts and your heart sharing. Just dropping by to say I miss you and you are thought of today.

    1. can't tell you how much this means. just this morning, i was again discouraged that i haven't been able to get some steps in my journey from my heart to my screen since this post almost 4 mo. ago (& counting). and sad b/c i can feel like not only am i isolated from my church community b/c i'm not engaged, but even on the sidelines of the blogging community as well b/c i'm so inactive. (it's pretty bad when you start to feel on the sidelines of a VIRTUAL community, huh?) so your "thinking of you" means so much. b/c i really miss me being here, too.

      and i loved your post from this morning, btw. so much i can relate to. the refining fire, the tearing down, the feeling small, the growing pains of becoming less so that He may become more, "the gory of facing yourself and the beautiful grace, both the work of the cross."

      i'm so grateful for your continued voice, jamie. and the Cross-shaped template of your blog. thx again for the big virtual hug today. grateful.


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