Church


During the season of Epiphany, our church uses the liturgy from the Anglican Church in Kenya.  It serves as a reminder to us that Jesus is the light to the nations.  I love so many parts of this particular liturgy, and I have looked forward to its richness each Sunday.  During the celebration of communion, we proclaim the following:

Celebrant:  Let us proclaim the mystery of faith.
People:      Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.
Celebrant:  We are brothers and sisters through his blood.
People:      We have died together, we will rise together, we will live together.
Celebrant:  Therefore, heavenly Father, hear us as we celebrate this covenant with joy, and await the coming of our Brother, Jesus Christ.  He died in our place, making full atonement for the sins of the whole world, the perfect sacrifice, once and for all.  You accepted his offering by raising him from death, and granting him great honor at your right hand on high.
People:      Amen.  Jesus is Lord.
Celebrant:  This is the feast of victory.
People:      The Lamb who was slain has begun his reign.  Hallelujah.
Celebrant:  Christ is alive forever.
People:      We are because he is.

This is the feast of victory, I thought last Sunday, as I watched a man with a cane struggle to walk down the aisle to receive it.

This is the feast of victory, I thought a few minutes later, as I walked forward, knelt before the cross, and received sustenance for my crippled soul.

Christ is the host and we are his guests.

“Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.”  (Luke 14:21)

A feast of victory for those who could not win it themselves.

“Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” … “Do not weep!  See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed.  He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”  Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if had been slain, standing in the center of the throne … (Revelation 5:2,5-6)

This is the feast of victory because it is the slain Lamb of God who stands on the throne. It is the slain Lamb of God who is the conquering Lion of Judah.  It was finished on the cross.  Victory won.  The kingdom ushered in.

As Lent begins today, we journey to the cross once again, reminded of the costly sacrifice that paid our ransom.

The feast of victory.  Our God reigns.

But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you.  Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay.  Your people will be my people and your God my God.”  (Ruth 1:16)

She left her country, her home, her people.  And incidentally, according to Naomi, her gods (Ruth 1:15).

Ruth chose not to return to them with her sister-in-law.  Instead, she chose to worship the one true God and journey to a new land and a new people.

So have we.

As with Ruth, that choice will be paved with loss and hardship.  It will also result in divine provision and redemption.  To be sure, it is the right choice.

But when we choose to make God our God, we also choose to make His people our people.  There is no way around it.  If He is our Father, His children are our siblings.  All of them.  The ones we like and the ones we don’t like.  The ones who are kindred spirits and the ones we can’t understand.  The ones we admire and the ones of whom we disapprove.

Perhaps I’m alone in this confession, but there are some in the family of God with whom I do not generally prefer to keep company.  There are some I find myself avoiding for various reasons.  There are some on whom I pass judgment without even thinking about it.  As ungodly as it may sound, there are some with whom I do not prefer to be identified.

But maybe I stand alone in these feelings.

You might be surprised at those who would fit in the categories above for me.  That’s really not the point, though.

When I chose to make God my God, I left behind the pattern of this world.  I chose to live as a citizen of a different country in fellowship with different people.  And I didn’t just choose to be their neighbors.

I chose to be their family.   I chose to be called by the same name.  I chose them to be my people.

And whether or not I like their company doesn’t matter.  Whether I admire their lives or disapprove of them doesn’t matter.  I do not get to choose with whom I will be identified in the family of God.

Because long ago, One wholly other than me chose to identify with my pitiful existence.

He was divinely unique, and yet He made Himself flesh-bound.

He did it to bind me to Him forever.  To call me His own.

And so I now call those He has ransomed mine too.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility … His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.  (Ephesians 2:14-16)

A month of Sundays.

That’s how long it’s been since the day we left that beloved little church on the North Shore of Massachusetts. Memories of our last days in New England may elude me at some point, but I won’t soon forget that Sunday morning.  It is etched on my heart, right along with all of the people that line the pews of that centuries-old sanctuary.

As my tearful husband and I stood before them to say goodbye, the emotions that had been growing over the previous Sundays flooded to the surface.  I didn’t know what else to say, except to tell them they would always be home to us and to thank them for showing us Jesus.  And, as they circled around us and prayed for us, my heart ached with a multitude of feelings that only increased with the beautiful cakes we ate after church and the old benediction hymn they sang for us in the fellowship hall.  Every time I look at the framed photographs they gave us, I’m reminded of how much we love them and how much they loved us.  It is a humbling thing to receive such affection.  It was undeserved and yet more precious than a thousand Sundays elsewhere.

And with each moment that morning, my heart kept crying out, “Who are we, Lord?”  Who are we that you would give them to us, not just for a few years but for eternity?  Who are we that you would take our heart’s desires for a season and give them back  to us in the most unexpected ways, in the most unexpected people?  Who are we that you would create a people to be yours and then welcome us to join it?  Who are we that you would love us so?

Every Thanksgiving, that tiny church breaks its tradition of a weekly sermon and calls several of its members to bear witness to the ways God has worked in their lives through the church.  It is a corporate thanksgiving of sorts.  Last Thanksgiving, I was honored to be one of the four to share from the pulpit.  Not knowing what the next six months would hold for my husband and me, these are the words I offered them that morning.

Last year, we sat around Parker’s parents’ dining room table at Thanksgiving, and each person shared what we were most thankful for in the previous year.   When my turn came, I shared that it was this church for which I was most thankful.

You see, when you pack up all your belongings and move 1,100 miles north to attend seminary, you have a lot of hopes.  But honestly, you try to set your expectations pretty low.  Maybe that makes me sound like a pessimist, but I feel the need to be honest. 

What I mean is that we had a lot of desires and dreams for our time at seminary, but we didn’t know if they were just too far-fetched.  We thought they might have to wait.  Some of them never came to pass, but — without a doubt — one of them did.

Just before Christmas in 2007, after what I’m sure was the most exhaustive search for churches on the North Shore, we decided to visit this church.  And we had no idea to expect. 

But not long after our arrival that morning, somewhere between the Christmas pageant announcements and the congregational prayer, I think we realized this church – this body of believers – was different than the other churches we had visited in the area or elsewhere.  [Tim was in India, of course, so he really can’t take the credit.]

The first time I had heard about this church was in a series of classes I took at the seminary for wives of students.  Rama was invited to speak one night, and her genuineness and candor stood out from other speakers.  It was fitting to me that she was the first impression I received of the church because she was merely a reflection of the authenticity we would find here.

What we’ve discovered here is a sincerity so refreshing it’s hard to even do it justice.  When I’ve tried to tell friends or family – or even other seminary students – about our church family, the most apt description I can find is that you are real and that you really love each other.  This is not a place where people wear masks and hide the realities of their lives.  This is a place where a whole lot of different people facing a whole lot of different things are reconciled together – in Christ.  As Paul said, God “has made the two one … creating in Himself one new man out of the two.”

I found that Robin’s mother put it so well at the women’s retreat this year – it’s a group that only God could put together.  I would add that it is God who keeps it together.

And that would be incredible for me, just to have had the chance to witness the body of Christ coming together as He intends, meeting each other in their uniqueness but unified in the hope of our Savior.  But that isn’t the whole story.

Because over these last couple of years, you have welcomed these two transplanted Southerners into your homes and into your lives.  You’ve brought us rhubarb jelly, taken us for boat rides, and shared your secrets of the best restaurants in town.  You’ve broken bread with us and you’ve welcomed us to your kitchen tables.  You’ve shown us the hospitality of Jesus.  You’ve shared your stories with us and provided space for us to share ours. 

You knew we might not be here for more than a few years, and yet you have welcomed us with open arms into the fellowship of believers in this place.  Wholeheartedly.  Without reservation.  You have no idea what that means to two weary travelers far from home.  The generosity of your love has graced our lives.  You’ve taught us what it means to be a body of believers whose unity comes from Christ.  You’ve demonstrated the power and beauty of living life openly together in community. 

You are our home here.  This church has become our family. 

For however long God keeps us here, I will sit back in awe of the fact that He led us to you, that He welcomed us here through your open arms.  And whenever this season in Massachusetts comes to a close for us, we will miss you the most. 

And we do.

Boy, have I got a lot rolling around in my head and heart right now.  They’ve been on the edge of explosion in the past two weeks for a whole lot of reasons, which I’m sure will come out over the next six weeks as we prepare to leave our seminary community and head to our next season of life.  I will ask your patience in advance as I will probably process that transition through writing as I have time, and I’m not completely sure it won’t devolve into emotional drivel at the rate I’m going right now.

On Wednesday night, we said goodbye to some wonderful friends who began their trek home to the Pacific Northwest Saturday morning.  I was doing fine the entire time until I watched the girls’ grandparents bid them farewell.  They had been in town for graduation and were heading home the next day to await the rest of the family’s arrival after their long road trip.

But as I stood there listening and watching their grandmother talk to these two precious girls, I got choked up.  My emotional swell was caused by my soul-deep regret that they weren’t listening to both of their grandmothers.  This fall my friend’s mother passed away after an excruciating battle with pancreatic cancer.  And in this brief moment, I was overcome with emotion recalling the diagnosis, the treatment, and the suffering.  Everything that happened within the few years she’s been in my life.  I thought about the tears that our whole bible study cried together both in her presence and in prayer for her when she was at her mother’s side for two months this fall.  It was sacred ground that we were privileged to tread, and it all came flooding back to me in that moment.

Births.  Successes.  Answered prayers.  Healing.  Victories. 

Infertility.  Miscarriages.  Heath problems.  Financial difficulties.  Marital crises.  Deaths. 

In the past three years, I’ve felt the weight of it all from living in community here at seminary.  I’ve had the sacred opportunity to weep and rejoice with those around me, and they walked with me through my own health concerns, personal trials, and joys. 

As I said goodbye to my friend, I began to feel a familiar tear in my chest that will become more pronounced in coming days.  It comes from knowing the end of a season is near and that separation from all that it has meant will not be easy.  Closure will not come neatly tied with a bow, and I need to let myself feel the pain of loss. 

The pain means it was real.  Things are only pried apart if they have been bound, and so it is with my heart. 

I guess I could have kept it all at bay for three years.  I might have escaped unscathed, but my attempts at self-protection would have resulted in an isolated heart.  And no matter how brief our season here, I am certain that is not what God had in mind.

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters.  Increase in number there; do not decrease.  Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile.  Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”  ( Jeremiah 29:4-8 )

Investment of my time, my energy, my heart.  That’s what God asked of me in this season and what He asks of me in the next.  He doesn’t promise any of it is forever.  He doesn’t promise ease or comfort.  He promises growth.

It’s a risky thing to “settle down” in the new thing God has for you.  It means you have to be sure of Him when you’re not yet sure of it.  And when He calls you on again, your soul must remember that stops on this pilgrimage are never without cause.

I sit here tonight with the heart-tearing only just begun again, but I am grateful. 

For I have loved and been loved.

There are so many priceless moments we’ve experienced over the past few years at our tiny church here in New England.  They make me love our small town church even more.

The announcement on Thanksgiving Sunday that they were still short “a Joseph and a wise man” for the children’s Christmas pageant.  The situation was so desperate that they would accept either gender.

The children’s sermon where Jesus was compared to Tom Brady.  (In case you didn’t know, Jesus is our quarterback.)

The Palm Sunday when one man proclaimed his confusion over why the Jews thought Jesus would be a conquering king.  After all, “He was bohn in a bahn.”  (Non-New England translation: He was born in a barn)

And then there was this morning.

I really don’t know how to adequately capture it in words, but I feel obligated to give it my best shot so that the whole world can share in my great delight.

First, you need to know that someone in the congregation works for a vet where many other congregants take their pets for care.

Second, you need to know that the family who often sits in front of us each Sunday had to put their dog to sleep almost two months ago.  It was a dog that had originally belonged to the wife’s now deceased brother, so the dog was extra special to this family.

Third, you need to know that, because of this dog’s special place in the extended family, they decided to have him cremated and bury the ashes somewhere meaningful to them.

By the way, the dog’s name was Pete.

Before the service started this morning, the previously mentioned vet’s assistant came over to this family and handed them a brown cardboard box that had been shipped UPS Ground to the vet’s office.

The family started laughing hysterically.  I don’t have to tell you why.

The vet’s assistant felt it was most convenient to deliver dear ol’ Pete when he saw them this morning, so as not to keep them waiting any longer.

And so there he sat  on the pew for the next hour in an 8x8x8 box.

At least we now know that UPS will ship your cremated canine, if you are ever in need.  However, I cannot vouch for FedEx.

All day long I have tried to summon something witty to draw an analogy here.  I am at a loss.  I have nothing more to say except that I worshiped this morning in the pew behind Pete, the cremated dog.

And just in case you were wondering, I did give Pete a little pat when we greeted each other and passed the peace of Christ.

May he enjoy his rest.

I fear many in the world might look at why the Church reads Scripture and be confused.

We read it to gain knowledge and information.

At times, we  read it to change the way we think or act.

And sometimes we read it to justify the way we think or act.

But do we read it to change who we are, that we may be formed in His likeness?

For the word of God is alive and powerful.  It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow.  It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires.  Nothing in all creation is hidden from God.  Everything is naked and exposed before his eyes, and he is the one to whom we are accountable.  (Hebrews 4:12-13, NLT)

“Our vision is so limited we can hardly imagine a love that does not show itself in protection from suffering.  The love of God is of a different nature altogether.  It does not hate tragedy.  It never denies reality.  It stands in the very teeth of suffering.  The love of God did not protect His own Son.  That was the proof of His love – that He gave that Son, that He let Him go to Calvary’s cross, though ‘legions of angels’ might have rescued Him.  He will not necessarily protect us – not from anything it takes to make us like His Son.  A lot of hammering and chiseling and purifying by fire will have to go into the process … Trust is the lesson.  Jesus loves me, this I know – not because He does just what I like, but because the Bible tells me so.  Calvary proves it.  He loved me and gave Himself for me.”  (Elisabeth Elliot, Passion and Purity)

This morning in church I sat two rows behind the woman who penned those words.  She is frail and has aged tremendously, but there she sat with her husband.  I knew that they attended our tiny New England church periodically, although I had never personally seen her before today.  And, as much as I tried to focus on our pastor’s sermon, I couldn’t help but fix my gaze on the back of her head.  He was speaking about sacrificial love, and, at one point, he said that we aren’t all called to die for someone else, but we are all called to live for others.

I just stared at her.  This woman, whose first husband sacrificed his life to bring the Gospel to the Auca Indians, sat in front of me, hunched over and held tightly in the arm of her husband.  She and her young daughter spent two years living with the Aucas, after they speared her first husband and four others to death.

Our pastor didn’t need to say anything else. 

Some people are called to die for someone else.  Most of us are called to live for others.

My eyes were fixed on the back of her head, and I thought about an entire tribe of people, who know Christ because of the sacrifice she and four other wives made for them.  I thought about all of the books she’s written, the people who have heard her speak, the miles she’s traveled, the wisdom she’s transferred.  And I thought about how frail she looked. 

Maybe it’s odd, but it wasn’t sad to me.  She looked smaller and more vulnerable than she has probably ever looked.  Though some in our church could recognize her, most probably didn’t even notice her.

But, as I sat there, I was simultaneously taken aback by the impact of her one life and her fragile humanity. 

I was reminded this morning of my own frailty – physically, emotionally, and spiritually – for I have nothing to offer in my human capacity. 

And I was reminded this morning that a life is made great only by the greatness of one’s God. 

Ms. Elliot, though you ceased speaking publicly years ago, your presence spoke profoundly to me today in the same way it has always done, even in your writing.  Your smallness made much of our God.  Oh, that He should use broken clay jars such as us!  May He be forever praised. 

He must become greater; I must become less.  (John 3:30)

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