As we tune our hearts for worship this week, I want to do something a little different.
I’m currently participating in a seminary course on the practices that form and constitute Christian community. This week, we were requested to reflect on our own Christian community autobiography. I could have fulfilled that assignment elsewhere, but instead, I’m doing it here…
…because the more I reflected, the more I realized this was the perfect place to do it.
Intrigued? You’re in for a longer post than usual this week, but I hope you’ll find it was worth it. Step with me down memory lane—my memory lane, at least—as I reflect on my story. I think you’ll find that, in many ways, it’s your story as well.
My story is a tale of two churches—First Christian Church of Monticello, and the Gibson City Bible Church.
As a child, First Christian was my home away from home. In so many ways, my childhood was shaped by the church’s practice of hospitality. The hospitality of the church was demonstrated through the open doors of the building itself. How many afternoons and evenings were the halls and classrooms of that church a castle or a spaceship, a conference room or a secret hideout for my friends and I while my parents modeled service and sacrifice by participating in the ministries of the church? Through the hospitality of the church, I learned what it meant to have a space where I was welcomed, even in a world that so often resents the inconvenience of children whose serious concerns of play and adventure aren’t serious enough for the somber world of adults.
Through this church, I was also shaped by the hospitality of its people. Week after week, as the hosts of my parents’ small group invited us into their homes, I learned what it meant to be part of a community bound together by something that reaches beyond the walls of a church building, or the limits of a Sunday morning sacred time. Of course, I learned this not through prayer and Bible study, but through playing computer games in the basement, or having lightsaber duels in the backyard. These were sacraments of my childhood, holy rituals of a faith that brought the grace of God into the concrete reality of my life in ways I would not recognize until years later.
And how concrete that reality became, through the church’s practice of generosity. During those months when my dad was searching for a job, and groceries would appear on our doorstep on the very days when money had run out. It was as if the stories of manna from heaven weren’t some abstract tale from centuries long past, but were still the way God provides for His people to this very day.
Of course, as many of you can already guess, the other Christian practice which truly shaped my experience at First Christian was the practice of worship. Did I understand all the words I was singing? Of course not. Did I fully appreciate the deep symbolism of communion of baptism? I doubt I ever will. But I can still remember the voices of the saints dancing off the rafters, stirring my soul with what I knew was the sound of heaven on earth. I can still remember tears in my father’s eyes as we sang, teaching me that it is ok, and even right, to be moved by the grace of God that goes beyond intellectual expression. I can still remember hearing this extended family singing, “It Is Well With My Soul” as I walked the red-carpeted aisle to publicly profess my faith in Christ and be plunged beneath the waters of baptism.
This was the story of my childhood. A story which, in many ways, ended when we moved to Gibson City. I was just entering middle school, and in many ways the Bible Church was the home of the adolescence of my faith, just as First Christian was the home of its childhood.
Here I experienced community through the practices of Bible study and prayer as I learned to go deeper in my faith with a community of saints. Here I became part of community through service, as I learned that my own gifts as a musician could be returned to the Lord for the good of His people. I learned that community isn’t just what you receive, but what you give as well. Practices of hospitality and worship continued to shape my understanding of Christian community; the hospitality of a church who caused us to feel welcome in a new place and a difficult time; the deepening appreciation for worship as I began to sense the first stirrings of God’s call on my life for ministry.
It was also at this church that I entered vocational ministry, and learned to see Christian community through a new lens—the lens of one tasked to invest in this community not only as one of its members, but one of its leaders. I learned the joys of serving alongside people whose faithful hearts and joyous spirits are a constant source of encouragement and conviction. I learned the terrible pain of pouring yourself into ministry, only to have someone slash your efforts apart with the razor-sharp claws of critical words and an inflexible spirit. Yet even through these trials, I learned the joys of reconciliation, the power of sitting at a table with someone who could be your enemy, and finding that in Christ, all the differences become something to be examined but not to be bowed to, that the grievances become something to be weighed, measured, and healed but not something to be chained by.
One last practice that shaped my experience at both churches, serving as an interesting parallel between my experiences, was the practice of promise-keeping. At both churches, I saw the local body responding to the faithfulness of God by committing to expand their facilities. I watched as this promise was kept, not by some instantaneous miracle, but by the hard work, financial faithfulness, and dedicated service of the church. And, looking back, I can see how in both cases, the celebration of the new buildings’ completion was really a celebration, not of our promises kept to God, but of His enduring faithfulness to us.
I said at the beginning of this post that my story is, in many ways, our story. But perhaps you read it, and it sounds nothing like your experience. How then can I say this is our story?
Consider the words we will sing this Sunday as we gather for worship. Consider these songs of testimony that tell our story as the body of Christ, and seek to take that story to others.
Isn’t our story as the body a story of hospitality? Of God creating a space where we are welcomed and valued, like I felt as a child in the halls of First Christian?
Isn’t our story a story of grace being made manifest in the concrete reality of our lives—not just in lightsaber duels in the back yard, but in a God who took on flesh and dwelled among us, and in a God who still dwells among us by His Spirit?
Isn’t our story the story of generosity—of a God who lavishly pours out the provision for all our needs with the same passionate abandon with which He poured out His blood for us?
Isn’t our story the story of worship, as the veil is inch by inch pulled back from our eyes, and the revealed glory of God compels us to ever-increasing emptying of ourselves in humble and reverent love of Him?
Isn’t our story the story of reconciliation, as we realize that we were the ones who inflicted terrible wounds, not with the razor claws of cruel words but with the cruel nails of crucifying sin? And where we learn that our God is the one who calls us to a table where we can be called not enemies, but beloved friends?
Isn’t our story ultimately the story of a God who keeps His promises?
This Sunday, our church will be focusing specifically on local outreach. On sharing our story with those around us.
Because ultimately, my story is a story of gaping holes being filled by the one thing that could fill them—the concrete, manifest grace of God made real in and through the family into which He called me. Ultimately, however different they may be in the particulars, all of our stories are that way.
And there are countless people in our lives whose stories are still in the first act of that grand narrative. Whose stories are stories of longing for welcome; of thirsting for generosity; of worshipping idols that never satisfy; of desperately desiring promises that will not be broken.
Listen one more time to the songs we will sing this Sunday. Sing the words to yourself.
These words are your story. These words are our story.
“Remember how His mercy reached
And we cried out to Him
He lifted us to solid ground
To freedom from our sin.”
“May our every breath retell the grace
That broke into our strife
With boundless love and deepest joy
With endless life.”
“This our holy privilege, to declare
Your praises and your name
To every nation, tribe, and tongue,
Your church proclaims…”
“I love to tell the story
Of Jesus and His love.”
Will we tell our story to them? Will we invite them to make our story their story?
May our worship this Sunday, and every day, be the fuel that reminds us of our story, and that motivates us to invite others to make it theirs, as well. Amen.