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