CHURCH NEIGHBORS

Walking through the parking lot, I see two of my neighbors talking at the door. In the hallway, I pass a few familiar faces and a friend who says they’ll be sitting toward the back on the left, if I’m looking for a place to go. Inside, I see my friend Autumn –she and her husband immediately scoot in, make room. 

Going to church alone can be, well, lonely. Recently, sitting by myself in a sea of unfamiliar faces was starting to feel like too much, and often left me wanting to stay in bed. It’s what prompted me to visit the church in my neighborhood, close enough that I can walk. I knew they preach the gospel faithfully, that a lot of people I love have made it their home, that at least three times in the recent past, I’d been asked if I go to church there. So I went. Mostly, I just didn’t want to be so alone.

I’ll be the first to admit that in seasons of sadness or singleness or stress, it’s easier to stay home. Sometimes the desire to skip the singing and sitting still and small talk is strong. Too many times, I’ve done it. But in my present season, the local church has cheered me in ways that I hadn’t expected –a reminder that the Church is God’s good design for our encouragement, for our sanctification, and for the making of disciples of all nations (Heb. 10:24-25, Eph. 4:11-13, Mt. 28:19). That God settles the solitary in a home, and that home is the Church –the house set on Christ the cornerstone, who’s designer and builder is God (Ps. 68:6, Heb. 11:10, Eph. 2:19-20).

In that season of Sunday mornings spent wishing I could just stay in bed, these words from David Gundersen in an article titled The Most Important Time to Go to Church encouraged and kindly exhorted me to get up, to gather with the family of God, to trust that it is obedience that often produces right affections:

“Go, because the church gathers every Sunday to remember the death of Jesus for our sins and the resurrection of Christ from the dead, and that’s precisely what we all need to remember and celebrate, regardless of what else is going on in our lives. Go, because the stone trapping you in the cave of depression can be rolled away in a night, and once God does it, no Roman soldier or Jewish priest can stop him. Go, because you’re gathering to anticipate a greater marriage than the one you hoped would happen later this year. Go, not because your trials aren’t real, but because that tabled bread and wine represents the crucifixion of the worst sins you could ever commit and the worst realities you’ve ever experienced. Go, and in your going, grow. Go, and in your going, serve. Go, and in your going, let God pick up the pieces of your heart and stitch together the kind of mosaic that only gets fully crafted when saints stay committed to God’s long-term building project, when they speak the truth to one another in love.” 

If you’ve spent any amount of time with any group of people anywhere, you know it will get messy. Feelings will get hurt, personalities and preferences will clash, we’ll be tempted to make secondary things of first importance. We’re going to sometimes get it wrong. But we have this hope –Christ, who is the head of the body and is faithful over God’s house as a son, has built his church on a rock and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Col. 1:18, Heb. 3:6, Matt. 16:18). Submitting to God’s good design, we get to gather as the grateful bride, trusting Christ for our collective salvation and sanctification, turning each other’s eyes to the truth under the of care our faithful head.

As we show up to sing, study, break bread, and watch kids run wild through the lobby, there’s a sweetness that we miss when we stay home. If church is hard for you, I hear you –but I do hope you’ll try again. I hope you’ll be encouraged by the perseverance of the saints in your particular corner of the world, spurred on to see your unique gifting and wiring as indispensable functions of the larger body, reminded of the glory of the Gospel that unites us to Christ and to each other. And if church isn’t so hard for you, I hope you’ll scoot in and be quick to say “Sit with us.”

May we walk away from Sundays equipped with a deeper knowledge of God’s word, a greater sense of community and calling, and a renewed commitment to love our brothers and sisters and neighbors. As we look forward to the gathering of all the saints for all eternity, may our gathering lead us to consider anew–blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:9).

GOSPEL SUBSTITUTES

I’m presented with countless buy-in opportunities every day. At every turn, I’m invited to invest the whole of my life in eliminating chemicals and preservatives and gluten from my life, chasing goals without apologizing, and sparking joy with sparse closets and perfectly-folded t-shirts. I’ve looked to many of them and pleaded, fix my life. I’ve turned to Powersheets and PiYo and really nice skincare regimens for Holy-Spirit transformation, spending my money for that which is not bread and my labor for that which does not satisfy. Each time, left wanting.

I’ve found that I can organize my closets and minimize my screen time  and swap all of my beauty and household products for chemical-free alternatives and find myself still deeply discontent and disappointed. You can schedule out your ideal week and prep a bunch of Pinterest-perfect Whole 30 meals and check off all of your goal boxes and never escape the cavernous ache for abundant life.

I have to remind myself often —Minimalism is not a substitute for Gospel transformation. Social media boundaries are not a substitute for Gospel transformation. Time management is not a substitute for Gospel transformation. Self-improvement is not a substitute for gospel transformation. Clean eating and goal-planning and habit-tracking are not substitutes for Gospel transformation.

I don’t believe these things are inherently bad –I actually think some of them are really good, when rightly ordered. In their proper place, these tools have the potential to make us better creation-stewards, healthier disciple-makers, and kinder neighbor-friends. They’re good things, or they can be, but they don’t make dead things come alive. I often catch myself believing that my best self and best life are on the other side of them. On the other side of Whole30, of perfecting my house or creating a capsule wardrobe, of becoming the kind of person who goes to the gym every day. I’m looking to habits and programs and new products to do what only the Gospel can.

It’s Christ in me, not a social media fast, that can make me more present. Christ in me, not the latest fad cleanse or workout system, that can make me more disciplined. Christ in me, not a well-ordered life, that fills me with peace. Christ in me, not a different set of circumstances, that breeds contentment in any and every situation. God who brings us from death to life is the one who equips us for every good work, who is conforming us into the image of Jesus, who will carry to completion the work He began –to the praise of His Glory. In a world full of products shouting this will make you better, the Savior says I am making you new.

 

ENDURE

In my own healing processes, I’ve tended toward two extremes. I’ve given in to my feelings entirely, allowing them to shape my perception of truth, and I’ve claimed the truth through gritted teeth, refusing to feel anything at all. It’s an area where old habits die hard. I distract myself with Instagram and too much Netflix and too many calendar commitments. I quickly brush over my own statements of sadness, disappointment, or fear with phrases like “But, it’s okay” and “But, I know God will use it for good,” hoping that rattling off the right truths will spare me the unpleasant feelings I’d rather avoid. My approach can quickly drift from one of endurance to one of blatant avoidance. Few things have spurred me on to a better way like this section from Calvin’s A Little Book on the Christian Life:

“For if all tears are condemned, what will we make of our very own Lord, from whose body trickled tears of blood? If all fear is judged faithlessness, what place will we give to that dread which according to Scripture heavily oppressed Him? If all sadness should be dismissed, how will we accept that His soul was sorrowful even unto death?

I’ve said these things about our experience of grief in order to keep godly people from despair –to keep them, that is, from immediately abandoning the pursuit of endurance because they cannot rid themselves of a natural feeling of sorrow. Such despair and abandonment will come to those who turn endurance into indifference. They will turn a courageous and faithful man into wooden post. Rather, Scripture praises the saints for endurance when we, though knocked around by evil circumstances, remain unbroken and undefeated; when we, though pricked by bitterness, are simultaneously filled with spiritual joy; when we, though oppressed by anxiety, breathe freely –cheered by the consolation of God” (79-80).

Calvin’s words remind us that endurance doesn’t ask us to deny our feelings but to submit them to the will of the Father, making it possible to endure through tears, endure in heartbreak, endure in the face of fear. How? By looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross (Hebrews 12:2). Jesus endured not without tears of blood, not without sorrow even unto death, but for the joy that was set before him.

As a people for his own possession, we follow him there.

It is here, in enduring, that we learn to submit to the Father, who is always kind and good and generous and doesn’t always give us what we want. Here that we experience God’s mercies which meet us in our sadness, new every morning. Here that we turn our eyes to the endurance of King Jesus, who condescended to dwell with and die for us, that we might be reconciled to God.

So we follow the suffering Savior, knowing that it is for discipline that we have to endure, that God is treating us as sons (Hebrews 12:7-8). Knowing that the Holy Spirit, the Helper he promised, equips us to endure not only obediently, but cheerfully. Knowing that the joy set before him awaits us also.