When all around my soul gives way, he then is all my hope and stay.
– My Hope Is Built On Nothing Less
With anxiety as my lifelong companion, I have felt at times that I am the worst person to be pregnant. Each pregnancy has been emotionally tumultuous, even the three that were smooth by all other measures. So recently, when I saw that second solid line fade into view, I dropped to my knees on the tiles of my bathroom floor, less so out of joyful gratitude than desperation.
Pregnancy tends to put to the forefront one of my greatest fears: death of someone I love. As a child, I was often afraid if my parents were out of the house for long. It wasn’t so much because I missed them, but because I imagined them never returning because of an airplane or car crash. As an adult, I’ve needed to consciously silence unfounded worst-case scenarios when Jeff’s taken longer than expected to come home. As a mom, I’ve gone to bed praying my perfectly healthy children would wake up the next day. My fear supposedly dates back to before my memory, when I would interrupt my mom’s naps to make sure she was alive.
A well-meaning phlebotomist who, drawing blood to test for hormone levels during my miscarriage a few years ago said, “You’re still young, you can have another.” But he misunderstood. The pain of miscarriage was never about my hopes for a child per se. It was about losing one I already loved. You don’t have to have known your baby for long, or even ever held him or her in your arms, to have loved fiercely and deeply.
The pain of childbirth– not just in labor, but in broken bodies and miscarried babies– reminds us this world continues to groan under the curse of sin. We are warned against public announcements of pregnancy during the first trimester because of the sheer statistics on miscarriage, a staggering 20% of all pregnancies. We fear rejoicing over the tiny lives forming in our wombs, because, what if we’re that one out of five? Pregnancy after miscarriage can be especially harrowing. During a time that ought to be joyful, we are woken up in the middle of the night by bloody nightmares and lie awake wondering if they will become reality. Our hearts drop at each sensation that resembles symptoms of pregnancy loss.
Christians are not spared from miscarriage, stillborn babies, and sick children. We know we have a Father who hears, but for reasons that are good and kind, allows things to happen to us that don’t feel good and kind. We know the answer to, “Your will be done” may sometimes mean our wills aren’t. So in the end, what difference does it make? What difference does it make to be a child of God in a fallen world, full of legitimately scary outcomes, as we await the renewal of all things?
Against convention, Jeff and I shared with our church about those double solid lines as soon as we saw them. I understand not everyone chooses to do this. But these brothers and sisters have walked with us through one miscarriage and I couldn’t imagine walking through 12 more weeks of uncertainty and anxiety on my own. I needed to let them know not in spite of, but because of the possibility of miscarriage.
These dear ones have been sharing in our family’s joy in ways that, because of fear, I have not yet been able to feel. They have reminded me to rejoice at the news of the tiny one being fashioned within me, and they are praying for us both. Whether they will celebrate with us when God answers their prayers for a healthy baby or mourn with us through the grief of loss, I am unspeakably grateful for the gift of God’s people.
The present trial of the unknown, of being in the waiting, has at times made me feel like I am going crazy. It isn’t so much the irrationality of my thoughts, but the sheer volume of them and the breakneck speed with which they overtake me. It has been a blessing to be able to share this struggle with others who are praying with us. This privilege is only surpassed by the divine invitation to pour out my own heart to he who hears and helps.
Ours is a God who does not sleep nor slumber (Psalm 121). Who receives our cries at one, two-thirty, and four o’ clock in the morning. Ours is a God who harkens to pitiful, groaning prayers from bathroom, closet, and living room floors. He is merciful. He is with us. He has carried us from our mother’s wombs and will carry us even as he fashions precious babies in ours (Psalm 139).
This may seem morbid, and maybe it is, but I have often leaned my ear on the chest of a loved one only to pull back in sadness. Something about the physicality of a thumping heart reminds me of the inherent weakness of human life. Each ba-bum speaks to me of our frailty– our utter dependence on one aging, fleshy pump in the earthy, mechanical processes of our circulatory systems.
In a broken world, our hearts threaten to fail. They threaten to stop beating so that our spirits are given up. They threaten to break into a thousand pieces under the weight of grief. Regarding our weak flesh and breakable hearts, the psalmist cries out,
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever (Psalm 73).
My flesh and my heart may fail. This is not what I want to hear. I want assurance of a healthy baby and smooth pregnancy. I want to know the baby’s heart will beat and that my heart will not break. But the truth is my baby’s heart may continue to beat for years and years to come, and it may not. My heart may be filled with joy or it may be overcome with sorrow. The truth is, it feels as if my heart may already be failing under the weight of the unknown. But in the uncertainty, God is. God is the strength of our hearts. He sustains each beat. He will lead us, whether through the shadow of the valley of death or by green pastures with quiet waters. He carries us even in our anxiety as we await being led to valley or pasture, which one, we don’t know.
A story attributed to Robert Louis Stevenson takes place on a ship out at sea. During a terrible storm, the passengers are understandably terrified. One of them, against orders, sneaks out onto the deck. There he sees the pilot, calmly and steadily steering the ship. The pilot turns to the trembling man and smiles, at which point the man returns to the other passengers. To them he announces, “I have seen the face of the pilot and he smiled at me. All is well.”
All does not always feel well. I am still being tossed about, it seems. Still the knowledge that God is not dictated by statistics, superstition, or formulas in dealing with my life has been a steadying anchor as I’ve been tossed about by fear. As the fog of fearful outcomes obscure my thoughts, he speaks clearly, “Lean not on your own thoughts. Trust in me.” (Proverbs 3:5). I have been reminded it is not only the tiniest member of our family whose every day is granted by God, but mine as well. And while this truth has not quelled the storm, it serves as a ballast when I fear my sails are about to go under and feel I will be swallowed up by the deep. All does not feel well, but in the deepest sense, it is.
I know I am not the only one in the waiting. These past weeks have felt like months, and the stretch ahead of me, endless. I write for me, but also for you, dear ones, who face uncertain futures with trepidation. To remind us we are led by a kind and wise Captain. He is steadfast at the helm. Though we venture into the unknown, he turns his face to us. We may still be afraid– I am. Very, very, very much so– but we, the people of God, trust not in the strength of our own hearts to carry us through.
This week, we received the gift of seeing a tiny heartbeat on an ultrasound screen. We are still very early in the first trimester, so early in fact that the doctor had trouble finding signs of anything going on in my womb. Yet there it was, the answer to one prayer, uttered hundreds of times, for a heartbeat.
We are still not “in the clear” (though, when are we ever, really?) and still, convention would dictate not sharing this news of burgeoning life within me. Yet, I am in wonder of this tiny heart. It has only just started to pump, and whether for days or decades more only God knows. Whatever the case, each beat will be sustained by our good God until this precious one sees Jesus face-to-face.
Whatever the case, he must be the strength of my heart as well.
A week ago, our family went to visit our alma mater with the girls. It was good to see our friends the Colvins & Wens, catch up and see how God is leading them in their lives. Jeff flew a kite on campus with our daughter, and it was crazy thinking that not too long ago, we were among the stressed out students walking by us, thinking about upcoming final papers and exams on the last week of classes.
It’s May, which means that many students are transitioning out of their campus ministries to go back home or to a new city for work. Jeff told me the other day about being in college and having a college graduate visit. He told them that his life just consisted of going to work, coming home, and playing video games. His point in painting this bleak post-college life was to tell them to make the best of what they had now in college because they’ll never get it again. Unfortunately, when I was a student, I heard people say things like that too. I am convinced though that this is not how God desires us to live our lives or “encourage” our college-aged brothers and sisters!
I understand that the post-graduation transition looks different for each person depending on the experience they had in college/ campus ministry and the places they are moving back to. At our church and the church Jeff interned at during seminary, many students commute to school or live nearby. These students are involved in the same churches they will be in after they graduate and the transition is more seamless (though starting to 9-5 job is a not a small change for them either). But for those who studied away from home, like us, or really experienced God at school learning to love, follow, and serve him first in the context of a campus ministry, I have noticed that the transition is often more complicated. I have seen some of my friends really take off spiritually and grow much more after college, and I have seen many others who have struggled.
Having been a college student myself away from home, staffed with a campus ministry, and talked with friends through their post-graduation experiences, I want to offer a few words of encouragement for those stepping into the post-college world in the upcoming months.
1. Prepare yourself to find a good local church, settle in, serve, and give your heart there.
This is the one thing that I have found makes the biggest difference between my friends who have graduated and thrived and who have really struggled with their faith after school. It’s not that the friends who found good churches were more spiritually mature or serious about their faith, but that the Christian life is impossible to live out alone.
While there are extreme cases where Christians may have to go through a time of isolation from other believers (being in an unreached people group, being jailed for the faith, etc.) and God is able to preserve them even in those circumstances, Scripture gives us stern admonitions to not neglect meeting with other believers because we cannot make it apart from them (Heb. 10:24-25). This isn’t because going to church proves our faith, but because we were never meant to make it on our own. Some college graduates mistakenly believe that their faith was never real and their spirituality was only an act of conforming to those around them. They think this because after they graduated, they stopped pursuing God. While there is something to be said about our faith being tested and God humbling us from our prideful view of our own spirituality, I think more often than not, it’s because these Christians believe that having true faith would have meant they would be able to continue to walk with God without being settled into a solid church. In reality, Scripture says that we cannot live the Christian life apart from the local church and the means of grace God has given us through the church. (I’ve written about some of that here for those interested: When You Don’t Feel Like Getting Up For Church)
I encourage all who are moving on from campus life to start looking for a church that is gospel-centered and is solidly committed to preaching the Scriptures, loving God and loving people. Learn a bit about what to look for in a church if you’re not going back to your home church and start praying about it even now. (You can start here: 9 marks of a healthy church). I know it’s easy to get discouraged when looking for a new church, and without people around you it gets easier and easier not to go, so I encourage you to even try to get connected with other Christians you know that are already in your new city before you go. You can also look up churches online for example at the Gospel Coalition Church Directory or Redeemer City-To-City churches.
2. Don’t try to replicate your college experience, but find out what it means to follow and serve God in your new stage of life.
College is a unique time and college ministry is a unique place. Life is different because as a college student, the amount of time you have, your responsibilities, and circumstances will never be replicated again. That’s one of the reason why in many ways, college is a special time many begin to experience God in fellowship with other Christians, serving him by making choices about what they spend their time doing, and sharing their faith with the students they have constant interaction with in the dorms, classrooms, and dining halls.
Life after college is different. There isn’t anything inherent better or worse about it, it’s just different. The responsibilities, opportunities, and day-to-day life routines will change– and that is a good thing because it is a God thing. God is the one who controls your circumstances, and you need to trust that there is no better place to grow to love him and love people than the one he has sovereignly placed you in. This doesn’t mean it’s wrong to seek to change your circumstances (like if you’re in an unhealthy church, or in extreme cases like an abusive relationship, etc.), but that there is no “ideal” life season, job, or situation you need in order to love God, love people, and grow mature in. It will be really hard for you if you think that the only way to keep loving and serving God is by doing what you did when you were in college. Why? Because you won’t be in college anymore. So, as I did when I became a new mom and moved into a new stage of life and as I am still doing now, I encourage those transitioning to pray and ask God what it means to serve and love him now. The heart of what you learned and practiced in college will remain the same– treasuring his word, growing to know him more, loving people around you– but the way it looks will be (and should be) different.
I have found that many who think that serving God at work will look the same as what they did in college end up either feeling guilty about not being able to do the same things and/or not knowing what it means to do their God-given work in a Biblical sense. Some even give up, discouraged, and “settle”. I believe that many Christians struggle because they don’t know how to make sense of the mundane work that makes up most of their days. One recommendation I have is to read up on some resources about God and work that I’ve referenced before on this blog. (There are some at the end of this old post that can get you started: Why Does My Work Matter?)
3. Humbly bring back what you learned from college to the new (or old) churches you’re going back to.
I am so thankful for the work that college ministries do on campus. I was heavily involved in my campus ministry when I was in college and worked at one post-graduation. But I think that one thing that many college students aren’t prepared for is life in their local churches after they have had a really great time of growing and learning in the context of their campuses. This sometimes leads to major discouragement, discontent, frustration, and disillusionment.
This is where finding a good, solid church is so important because it will help you to see what it means to live out the Christian life in a fuller scope than just the college years. I also think that recognizing that serving and loving God will look different for different people in different seasons of life will help many to adjust to going back to churches or entering churches that aren’t filled with college students. At the same time, I believe that those who have experienced God in deeper and new ways at school can still bring back what they learned to the churches at home (or their new churches). This doesn’t mean necessarily starting or leading the same type of ministry that you saw in college, but seeking to see what the vision of the local church and the leaders are, coming on board with that, prayerfully considering and asking the church leaders how you can serve, and using all that you have learned in order to build up the local body of Christ. It is okay to recognize the unique experience you had or even see some of the things that may be lacking or needed in the local church. But rather than using your college experience as a measure to judge other places, see the experiences and lessons you have learned as entrusted to you by God. When you see them as a gift to be stewarded, you can humbly pray for opportunities to serve and use your gifts or perspective in support of your church’s vision, and in time they can be used and leveraged for the sake of the church and for the glory of God.
4. Direct thanks to God for your time in college rather than getting lost in nostalgia.
There isn’t anything wrong with missing friends or fellowship (or free time!) But nostalgia in and of itself often leads to a discontent that ultimately indicates a heart that says “God, you have placed me in a worse place than before. What you have given me now is not best.” In college, I loved taking long walks on our beautiful campus, sometimes hours at a time, praying, thinking, journaling. I remember such sweet moments of communion with the Lord as I prayed to him, sang to him, and reflected on all the things I was learning. Now, with two young girls at home, I can’t just take spontaneous breaks like that anymore. I can be tempted choose to react to these memories with a sense of loss (“Oh, I’ll never get that again. Those were the good old days.”), or dismiss them as not “real life.” But I don’t think either of these reactions is what pleasing to God.
Remembrance is one of the themes of the Bible, particularly remembrance of what God has done. But this remembrance isn’t empty nostalgia, longing for the good old days. Ecclesiastes 7:10 says, “Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.” Rather, the remembrance we are called to is one that reflects on the way God has delivered and God has helped us already in a way that strengthens our faith in his promises for the future. This is seen most importantly in our remembrance of the work of Christ on the cross, and in smaller ways, in the specific works of God through our lives. In 1 Samuel 7:2, after God delivered the Israelites from battle, Samuel set up a stone, named it Ebenezer, which means “stone of help,” in order to remember that “Thus far the Lord has helped us.” For me, instead of being sucked into longing for my college days, going to Cornell is sweet when this type of remembrance is in view. I remember who I was before college, how God worked powerfully in me at that time, and I give praise to him. I get to remember places I prayed, what I prayed there, and how he has answered since then. I am reminded of how far he’s brought me since graduation and how he is so good and so faithful to me.
I encourage upcoming college graduates who have experienced God deeply and loved their time at their campus fellowships to rather than look at what a campus ministry was able to do or at the “college life” with longing, to look to and give thanks to God who was the one who worked in your heart during the time there and through the people you knew there.
5.Resist cynicism. Trust him with your regrets, recognizing and clinging to the grace of God.
While there are some people who can’t stop longing for their college days, I know some who can’t look back without being dismissive of their college selves, campus ministry experiences, and anything college-related. I understand. It took a while before I could look back at my freshman self, full of zeal and immaturity, without cringing and just shaking my head. And then, there’s the mistakes I made, sins I committed, and people that I hurt that I feel regret for still, even after 10 years.
Sometimes, I see cynicism form because stepping into the “real world” from the “college bubble” was tough on the faith of some and they stumbled and fell. Sometimes it’s because people had rough experiences in their campus ministries and only after stepping out did they see how it impacted their view of God and the church negatively. I see some who question their faith, God, and Christianity and begin to question of whether or not what they had in college was “real” or even whether it was their “real self.”
There’s much I can say here and each person’s struggle is unique, so just briefly, I want to encourage you to look at the signs of grace in your life and consider that God knew completely what was in your heart and what was going on around you, and see how he was working in you despite yourself and despite imperfect Christians around you. As you go look back at your younger, less mature, more naiive, less sanctified self (which was really you at the time, just all those things–less mature, more naiive, less sanctified), don’t rest your gaze there. Let the grace of God bring you to a place of deeper gratitude, worship, humility, and grace. Gratitude for his blood that covers your sin and his patient perseverance with you in spite of yourself, worship for his immeasurable love and mercy with which he loves you now even though in a few years by the grace of God you will more mature and Christlike than today, and humility and grace towards others who are more immature and young in the faith than you. When you do this, you can be honest– both about the ways you fell and failed and about the ways he truly did work in and even through you by his grace and to his glory.
6.If you don’t end up struggling, praise God! And pray for your friends who are having a hard time.
Some of you already have a strong local church to go home to and a healthy understanding of work, God, church, and life. Praise God for this! I just encourage you to remember and be kind towards your friends who have a harder time transitioning. Instead of saying (or thinking) “what’s wrong with you?” I encourage you to consider that while you are strong, you have a unique opportunity to strengthen the weak. Pray for your friends, particularly those who became Christians in college, to find and settle in good churches. Listen to and lift up those who are struggling, and thank him for his grace toward you in your transition.
7. Lastly, consider the faithfulness of your God and look to the future with joyful hope!
I have always resisted a doomsday portrayal of college graduation. Why? Because it makes it seem like God is the God of the college campus and not of the rest of life! Or that his grace and the gospel which began a good work in you is insufficient to carry you through to the end (as opposed to Phil 1:6.) This is simply not true. In the same way that many of us may not have sought God as we entered into college, but he worked in us miraculously to bring us to himself and into a community of people who love him, it is not our faithfulness to him that will sustain us through the years, but his love and faithfulness to us in Christ.
Your life will change in the coming year, but look to him who has not, does not, and will never change. His grace and the knowledge of his mercy has not been exhausted in your 4 (or 3 or 5) years in college. He saved us so that in the ages to come, he may show to us the immeasurable riches of his grace! (Eph. 2:4-7) That does not end after graduation! He has worked in your life up until now, and he is able to keep you from falling– from the day you walk in cap and gown until the day of his coming. Be encouraged, looking to him who alone does not change, who has been with you up to now and will continue to carry you through to the end.
Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (Jude 24-25 ESV)
A few weeks ago I had a conversation with one of my close friends as our daughters played together. As she talked about how her daughter will grow up knowing the gospel in a way that she herself didn’t, and how her daughter will never have the memory of hearing it for the first time, she asked me about my experience of growing up in church. It got me thinking as I reflected on God’s work in my own life and later came across two blog posts, one about not having a dramatic testimony, and one sharing a testimony of a fifth generation Christian.
Here are some thoughts regarding salvation and growing up churched that I’ve had in light of considering myself and now our girls as they grow up in church:
1. Churched-background or not, salvation is about being brought back from the dead.
Being delivered from Satan, sin, and death is anything but average or boring. Having your sins forgiven and being redeemed and made alive is mind-boggling. The idea that anyone’s testimony of blood-bought salvation could be uninteresting or unspectacular is a defamation of the work of Christ…No testimony that involves the Son of God bearing your sins on the cross in order to bring you to God could ever be mundane or boring. (65)
I had the gospel explained to me for the first time I remember when I was around 7 or 8. And though I do have experiences in my life that marked drastic growth in my desire for God and understanding of his gospel, I don’t remember ever not believing in God. When I was younger, I used to wonder if that would mean I wouldn’t ever be passionate about his salvation or as grateful as other people who were more of the “younger son” in the prodigal story. But as I have come to know and continue to grow in knowing God more through the ordinary means of studying and hearing the Scriptures, my sense of awe and gratitude at his saving grace has grown too.
Because I know that I, by nature am a rebel against God, sometimes when I come to understand more deeply how great God is, how sweet his promises are, or how true his word is, I remember that without his intervention in my life to open my eyes, I wouldn’t be able to see any of it– and I am absolutely floored. The outward changes in my life may not seem so dramatic to others, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that without his saving work, I would be blind to his worth and reject his word, and I thank God that by his grace alone I am not and do not.
2. My salvation is much grander in scope than a story about me and my conversion experience.
Michael Horton writes in an article challenging the emphasis on individualistic, one-time, “radical” decisions in thinking about salvation:
So then, to queries concerning our salvation, we ought to reply:
1. When? Before creation, at the cross, in my lifetime, and in the future. Let this replace, “On July 10, 1965, during the eighth verse of ‘Just As I Am,’ when Brother Fred held a revival at our church.”
2. How? By God’s electing grace, redeeming grace, calling, justifying, and sanctifying grace, and by his glorifying grace (Rom.8:29-39). This can take the place of, “By raising my hand, going forward during the altar call, and praying the prayer after Brother Fred.” As John Murray writes, “It is necessary to guard against a wrong use of introspection. It is not by looking within, in the attempt to discover the movements of God’s regenerative grace, that faith is evoked. It is preoccupation with the glories of the Saviour that constrains faith. We do not rest upon that which is done in us, far less upon that which is done by us. Faith does not feed upon the saving experiences that it evokes” (Col.Writ.,vol.2, p.259).
3. Where? In the church, where the proclamation of the Word and the administration of the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) unite me to Christ and to his people. This is a more biblical response than, “In the privacy of my own heart.”
4. From What? From the guilt and control of our sins in this life, and from the presence of sin in the next. This stands in the place of, “Lack of self-esteem, unhappiness, sickness, etc.”…
5. Why? In the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Let this replace, “So I could enjoy the happiness of the victorious Christian life,” or other explanations which have oneself at the center.
My testimony isn’t about a day “I decided to accept Christ.” And it isn’t even about my parents “raising me right” or my church doing a good job. It about the God who is able to bring dead people to life for his glory– of which I am an example. He chose me before I knew him, he worked in me before I could believe, he is continually saving and changing me, and I will be saved on that day when I see him face to face.
3. God is faithful not just to individuals, but to his people.
Michael Horton writes in the same article:
As the apostle Peter assured his audience that the gospel promise was still “for you and for your children,” so too we must challenge any conversionistic evangelism which ignores the covenantal context of conversion.In this way, the anxiety of Christian children about being converted or born again is removed. They are called to deepen their understanding and experience of God and their inheritance with the saints, but they are not to turn inward, searching for that one radical change in their behavior which they brought about one day when they decided to follow Jesus.
And Rachel Jankovic in the blogpost I mentioned at the beginning:
All of us who have faith have it as a gift – and how humbling it is to know that the very fact of your faith, as well as your life, is part of God’s faithfulness to others…My Grandpa Jim gave us all Valentines roses this year, my girls too, and in his very formal but increasingly shaky hand, right before he signed off, he wrote, “You are part of Exodus 20:6, ‘But showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.’”
My faith is a story of faithfulness – the faithfulness of our God. It is a story of God doing what He promised He would do. My life and my faith and my prayers for my children are all part of a beautiful and intricate story of God’s faithfulness to His people.
Today, Jeff asked me what I thought were the 10 most pivotal events of my life. I asked him if I had to answer limited to events that happened within my lifetime. He didn’t let me answer things like God’s choosing us before the foundations of the earth, creation, Christ’s life, death and resurrection, etc. etc., (can you tell I was giving him a hard time?) but allowed for out of those ten events to have happened before my birth. Both his and my first answers went back to when either our parents or great-great- great(?) grandparents first came to know Jesus. God has been faithful to them and we are a testimony of his faithfulness.
4. Boring testimonies are testimonies of his grace in forgiveness of sins as well as in his grace in being kept from sins. God’s grace in keeping us from sin hit me when I first read Augustine’s Confessions. In it, he writes:
Thou hast forgiven me these great and heinous deeds of mine, and hast melted away my sins as they were ice. To Thy grace I ascribe also whatsoever sins I have not committed ; for what might I not have done, who even loved a sin for its own sake? Yea, I confess all to have been forgiven me ; both what evils I committed by my own wilfulness, and what by Thy help I committed not.
The sins I have committed are pardoned because of his mercy and grace. And the sins I have not committed, I was restrained from by his mercy and grace.
How We’re Praying
Jeff and I are praying that even now, God would grant new life to our girls and that it would show in their lives as the fruit of faith in the coming years. We are praying that their testimonies would be a wonderful demonstration of God’s faithfulness to keep his promises to believers in generation past, and of his mercy to grant them new hearts to live in grace– grace to forgive them for and keep them from sin. We are praying that our girls would have a “boring” testimony that they would understand with all their hearts and minds is anything but boring.
When this poor lisping, stammering tongue lies silent in the grave
Then in a nobler sweeter song,
I’ll sing Thy pow’r to save!
-There is a Fountain
I have heard people say before “if you find a church full of perfect people, don’t go there because you’ll mess it up.” That’s true and I get the meaning behind it, but in my heart I hear that as, “the perfect church doesn’t exist and you’re messed up too so suck it up and just go to a church!” In many ways, I have thought that way about the sin and messiness of relationships and living life in the church- it’s something that you kind of just have to live with and hope you survive through since the benefits of being in church outweigh the negative. I understand the struggle though of not wanting to get too “in” because relationships are messy. Conflict makes me anxious, sin makes me frustrated, and is there anyone who welcomes the possibility of being disappointed and hurt by other sinful people, especially those who profess to be Christians?
As God has been shifting my paradigm with regard to the local church, I am starting to experience the beauty of being in a Gospel-preaching and livinglocal church with other sinner-saints still in the fight, still being sanctified. Here are a few blessings I’ve been learning to see:
1. I am welcome.
I am welcome into this community not because of my meeting certain religious prerequisites, but because by his grace, my eyes have also been open to see “I need Jesus!” I could say so much more about this, but maybe another time?
2. Each time sin is brought to light is an opportunity for the Gospel to shine forth.
Jeff says that some of his favorite times in our marriage has been after we fight and reconcile. He’s often said after fights, “there’s no one else I’d rather work through this with.” Me on the other hand, am conflict-avoidant and for a long time, didn’t get how that was supposed to be comforting.
When Jeff preached through Ephesians though, particularly Ephesians 3:10 on the manifold wisdom of God being displayed through the church, things got clearer for me. The church is God’s chosen means of displaying his glory to the universe with regard to his wisdom and power in redemption and the gospel. It is not only a display of redeemed individuals and families, but his Gospel is at work and displayed in our relationships when we work through our sinful conflicts. That means conflict and sins being surfaced (surfaced because sins were not created by circumstances; they were just uncovered by them) in Gospel-communities are opportunities to run together to the cross and see God’s power to redeem and change. Wow!
I know this is easier to say and terribly painful to experience. It’s not that we desire or look to be disappointed by people as we learn about them, hurt, sinned against, etc. And it’s not that we blindly trust anyone that says they are a Christian. But as sin inevitably comes out even in the most God-pleasing relationships, it is not something to be merely dreaded, but given over to God for an opportunity for the Gospel to be displayed for his glory. When I reflect on my own family (parents and siblings) and our particular history of sins and deep wrongs against one another, I see the grace of God so clearly to forgive and change us, heal and redeem. (He is still doing all this now.) I see the sweetness of the Gospel and how amazing and powerful God is. I praise him and want to share this testimony with others. I think, how much more are we also meant to see that in the Family of God?
3. When I see changed/changing lives, I am reminded that God is real and working.
I’ve shared often that the hardest thing for me to believe is God’s ability to change people. Heal someone’s terminal sickness? Of course he is able to do that. Make the world out of nothing? No problem, he’s God. Change someone so that they will walk with him til the end? “Well…Will you really do that, God? I’ve seen so many fall away.” This has been a defining struggle in my own walk with God- believing in his power to change me- and it has carried over into my life in the church. Partly, I think it has to do with how God has gifted me and given me a heart for shepherding. I’m always thinking, what will help this person continue to walk with Jesus? But it’s also something that keeps me humble and dependent on God who alone does work that lasts forever (Ecclesiastes 3:14).
When I see signs of his Spirit and work in the lives of brothers and sisters, knowing their struggles with sin and the flesh, I am astonished and amazed, reminded that Jesus is really alive and God is still working today. It’s different singing “I’ll sing Thy pow’r to save!” when you only know what God did in your own life versus thinking also about the work you’ve been privileged to witness and struggle in prayer for in the lives of those singing with you.
4. I learn to hope in Christ, walk by faith and live by his promises that one day, he will be victorious in our lives and we will no longer be struggling with sin. It is amazing and refreshing to see lives changed and people walking in victory over sin and living for God. But backsliding Christians, half-hearted worshippers, hurting marriages, prodigal children, less-than-ideal church happenings…I wrestle so often with discouragement. It’s not that I think I am better than anyone else, but it is heartbreaking and difficult to be a witness of the devastating effects of sin in the lives of Christians. And yet, as the hope of the resurrection and final victory of Christ over sin and death became the greatest hope to me personally when I saw the hopelessness of my own sinfulness, I have come to hope in God this year in a greater way than I ever have seeing these things in the church. It’s different singing “Dear dying Lamb, thy precious blood shall never lose its power/ till all the ransomed church of God be saved to sin no more!” when you are not only wrestling with your own sin, but with discouragement over the effects of the struggle against sin in the body of Christ. Through these disappointments and struggles, the hope of God’s ability to bring his ransomed home and one day perfect us completely is not just a truth I know or even a sweet comfort, but an anchor for my soul.
When I was younger, I used to just wish that I didn’t see the “bad things” so I could be blissfully happy. But the Christian joy is not the bliss of ignorance and glossing over of wrongs. It is looking straight at the hideousness and power of sin, being in the trenches of the fight where at times you say “God, are you even working? It feels like it will always be like this,” and having all the false hopes in people and self be stripped away. It’s looking at God who became a man, lived in the throes of sin, and in his death showed sin to be immeasurably worse than we ever feared. It’s marveling that he broke the terrible power of death and sin in his victorious resurrection. And it’s living in the promise that the victory in holiness we taste and strive for in part today will be ours in full measure when he comes again. And we need each other in the local church for this.
Walking with you as Christ walks with us,
Note: I wrote this after watching this short interview with David Powlison (“Can I Grow In Holiness Without The Local Church“) and being reminded of another reason why I am thankful for corporate worship. It’s only 7 minutes long, you should watch it! In it he said:
“There is nothing like singing with a passel of other believers who mean it…There’s points where you can’t even sing…and it’s so awesome what we are saying to the Lord and to each other.”
Last week was a long week. There was no one major thing that “got me”, it was just a bunch of smaller things in ministry, family, and day-to-day life that built up to the point where, alone at home with the baby, I sat on the floor of the dining room holding a spoonful of food that she didn’t want to eat, praying “God, I can’t do this.” I think that was Saturday night, so it’s no surprise that when I woke up the next morning feeling tired and with the thought that maybe I should just tell Jeff that I needed to stay in from church that day. I ended up tweeting this before Sunday service:
Some people were concerned (thanks for thinking of me!) But my intention of tweeting that was 1. to be honest and 2. more than that, to hopefully be an encouragement to anyone else who might wake up feeling the same way and happen to check their Twitter/Facebook.
God has been shaping my view of worship and Sabbath the past few years, and by his grace, on Sunday the very fact that I was so drained and needy- the fact that I didn’t want to go to church actually made me look forward to going.
I’ve grown up thinking and hearing different things about Sunday worship and Sabbath.
It was routine or about seeing friends. When I was young, it was just a given and part of our week. I generally looked forward to seeing my friends at church although at times it was a bummer that I only had Saturday to sleep in.
Sabbath was about not going to work. I heard different rules about Sabbath and not working so that you could show that you trusted God to provide financially even though you didn’t go to your job.
Sunday service was about “putting God first”. In college, when it was my choice to go to church, Sunday service was about the discipline of choosing to go worship God instead of sleeping in when no one was there to force me to go.
It was about “getting something out of” the sermon. Later, when God continued to grow me, it became about what I could learn from the sermon or hear from God during the message.
Going to church on Sunday was about serving. I’ve heard people say “go to church to give not to get something.” At times it felt like I couldn’t breathe spiritually and I still went because it was part of my service to people and commitment.
Not that there is anything wrong about routine, seeing people you love, trusting God with your work, prioritizing, learning something new, or being committed in service but this was way short of the way Sabbath is portrayed in Scripture. It’s no wonder though that with these thoughts about what Sabbath is supposed to be, sometimes when I’d wake up Sunday morning it felt like burdensome duty or even an optional activity (why not listen to a sermon online from a famous pastor?)
In the last two years, God has been growing me in how I see Sabbath and what it means to meet with God’s people for worship. Here are a few thoughts:
1. Sabbath is a mini-rest for pilgrims heading toward our final heavenly rest.
Sabbath in Scripture is not just about not working to reflect how God didn’t work on the seventh day. It is meant to be a reminder and glimpse of what will happen when we finish our work here on earth and enter into the rest of God. The Sabbath is a gift from God meant to point to the final (eschatological) rest in the presence of God that we will have when we finish our course here on earth. (Hebrews 4:4-9)
Right now, as Christians we have the promises and presence of God but still live in the “not-yet.” In our lives and in the world we still experience brokenness, turmoil, and sin. Throughout the week as we are scattered in various places, we experience those things to different degrees. When we meet together, we remember that it’s not always going to be like this. We taste in our worship and fellowship together the joy, peace, comfort, healing, love that will be fully known when Jesus comes again. When we listen to the truth of Scripture with people who love God, it is rest for our souls after being bombarded constantly by different world views, sorting through lies about God and life, fighting our own flesh, etc.
2. Sabbath with God’s people reorients my heart toward Home. We were made to worship God and enjoy him forever. When I worship with God’s people, I get a glimpse of what eternity will be like. I am refreshed and hopeful as my sights are set again on my purpose and destination. When we experience a bit of God’s presence, the sweetness of worshipping him, the life-giving truth in his word, the grace in the gospel- it gives us a taste of our final Home, stirs our longing for the day when we will be with him forever, and we are encouraged to press on. Things that I have been consumed with during the week take their proper place in my thoughts and perspective when we worship our unchanging, eternal, holy God.
3. We come into worship desperate, needy, and bankrupt. Church service not about “coming to give and not to get.” We come into Sunday having failed as children, sisters, parents, and Christians. Our hope is in the promise of grace held out to us at the cross. We need Jesus. If I feel weary, not good enough, on the brink of giving up, God welcomes me.
Pastor John Piper has a great message about worship and responds to the skewed theology of pastors who say that the problem with their people is that they “get and not to give.” Our need and thirst for God honors and delights him when we turn to him. Pastor Piper said in his message:
I say to my people “You don’t have anything to bring to this service! You come in here dead! You come in here discouraged!…bankrupt!…empty! And maybe if you’re empty enough, God might get some glory from you by your craving his fullness. If you come here craving, longing, desiring, knowing this one thing ‘Everything in the world failed to satisfy my soul. I’m going to church this morning because I just might drink from the fountain of living water and have my soul satisfied.'” That’s the kind of people I want to come and that’s the kind of service that will explode with life. It’s thirsty people, it’s hungry people, it’s needy people who come to worship. (The Heart of Worship– John Piper)
These points are by no means a complete theology of Sabbath, but were part of what motivated my tweet Sunday morning. If I feel weary, not good enough, on the brink of giving up, I need to Sabbath and God welcomes me.
I never understood the stern warnings against neglecting to meet with the people of God until I started to see that worship with God’s people is so much more than about choosing to be disciplined, being committed, trusting God about finances, or even growing spiritually. It’s an issue of choosing life and absolutely essential for my soul. So while I may not wake up this coming Sunday wide-eyed, perky, and excited, I look forward to joining with other weary and worn travelers before a God who knows our needs and is gracious to command our rest as we journey home.