A Great Cloud of Witnesses

Four (out of approximately one million) things I have wondered lately:

1. Why am I in the situation I am in?
2. Why do I feel alone?
3. Why am I still awake?
4. Why are there no more Cheez-its? (answer: my sister ate them)

I’m about to tell you a story, without telling you the whole story. The past six months or so, I’ve been going to counseling (I cannot recommend this enough) and have been on an agonizing, confusing, frustrating, eye-opening journey through something I had done my very best to avoid my entire life up to now.

I cannot begin to list off all the resources that have been at my disposal during this ongoing struggle. Books, articles, interviews, podcasts, good friends, counseling, writing songs, writing stories . . . oops, I guess I did try to list them all. Seriously, my mind has been consumed by this journey for months on end.

In sifting through all of these words and trying to piece things together to reach a livable conclusion, I’ve noticed something . . . these resources and people are wonderful and clearly God-given and absolutely imperative to my journey, but I’ve been looking at them the wrong way.

I’ve selfishly been trying to save myself from pain by living vicariously through other peoples’ stories. Instead of accepting all these things primarily as encouragement that I am loved and not alone, I subconsciously count each conversation, songwriting session, testimony, etc. as another piece of armor to shield me from personal pain, as another weapon that I am supposed to use to win the war. What I’m finding is that all this armor and all these weapons I thought would keep me away from experiencing brokenness in my own story has in fact stockpiled into a storage center as large as Yankee stadium (or should I say Wrigley Field, Chicago Cubs fans?) that has nearly driven me crazy.cloud-of-witnesses

I take great solace in my cloud of witnesses, but perhaps for the wrong reasons.

I’ve been trying to turn my cloud of witnesses into an army of warriors. But what else are “witnesses” but people who watch you and cheer you on and who testify to the reality of your experience? The most avid fan at a baseball game is not going to suddenly run out into the field during the bottom of the 9th to take their turn at bat. However, witnesses do make a difference! Imagine the World Series without any witnesses…I would think that the players would feel a little discouraged that no one cared to show up. There is SO much more motivation to play well and play hard with so many people cheering you on! My cloud of witnesses encourage me tremendously, but they cannot prevent me from making mistakes and messing up and falling flat on my face. I should not expect myself to do everything perfectly just because I “know better,” just because I am aware of others’ failures and victories.

I must live my own story.

I must accept my own brokenness. I must persevere by looking to Jesus and to the joy set before me that comes from choosing to walk through suffering in order to follow Him.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” – Hebrews 12:1-3

Loved

In this 24th year of my life, I’ve decided to go on a journey. Long have I taken up the banner of loving God and others well. Long have I been overwhelmed by a pharisaical burden of doing the right thing, always. Long have I felt (and enjoyed!) my self-worth being bolstered by spending every part of me to give others just a little bit of hope. Long have I lived in agony at the breaking of my self-inflicted impossibly high standards for my own character and actions.

This year, I’m setting the “love God, love others” banner down and exchanging it for one that says, simply, “loved”. Daily, I will try to choose to shift my focus. It’s going to be difficult. I will fall into patterns of legalism. I will fall into traps of temptation. I will forget why I’ve shifted my focus. I will allow myself to fail. I will fall into God’s grace.

Quotefancy-319505-3840x2160You see, I have skipped a very important step in trying so hard to love God and others well. I’ve forgotten (have I ever really known?) how much God adores and delights in me. If my pride knew no bounds and every single thing I did was purely for selfish gain, God’s love for me would be unending. If I was paralyzed and unable to communicate or take care of myself let alone others, God’s love for me would not diminish. If I threw all caution to the winds and indulged in self-destructive desires, God’s love for me would not change. If I cursed Him and made it my mission in life to destroy all belief in Him and I became a tyrannical dictator and killed everyone who stood against me, His love for me would remain unequivocally strong.

This kind of love is CRAZY. I can’t imagine it!

I’ve always known that God has loved me. But, that has never been the focus of my study, my emotions, my life. Imagine everything you do, everything you think about yourself and others, flowing out of the unshakeable trust that you are unconditionally loved by God as you are, were, and will be.

Jesus said that the equally important commandment to loving God is to love others as you love yourself. In an especially honest conversation, a friend reminded me that if I can’t love myself, if I can’t internalize how deeply loved I am by God, there’s no way I can love others well. How do I love myself? By delving deep into the riches of the love that chose me before the universe was born, the love who sticks with me in all my wandering and denying and destroying, the love who gives His life for me and will one day bring me into everlasting joy.

Sidenote: If you’re interested in going on this journey of discovering (or re-discovering) God’s love for you, here’s a great place to start: Abba’s Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging.

Church Shopping and Community Finding

Definitions:
Big C Church = Christ-followers everywhere
Little c church = community of Christ-followers regularly meeting together

The banner at the top of this page is not mine. Credit to The Axis Church of Nashville.


I almost went to church today.

If I visited one church per week in Nashville, it would take me over 13 years to visit them all. Well, I’m three and a half months in, folks, and I’m already tired. I understand my twenty-something peers a little better now. I understand why you’ve stopped trying to go to church.

I’ve never liked shopping, and this is what all this visiting feels like to me. I examine the colors of worship to see if they match with my idea of what is authentic and humble and excellent. Let’s try on some hats. Does the pastor’s message fit my head just right? And what about those prices… are people truly authentic here or are they trying to sell me something?

And gosh, I’m into the environmentally-friendly, fair trade, stuff, you know? Like is the church spending money on a gluttony of stuff for the insiders or is it really making a difference and forsaking comfort to truly love the insiders and the outsiders? The mission and vision–like a pair of shoes. Do they squeeze my toes so much that I’m uncomfortable or do they leave so much room that I’ll just walk right out of them and not even notice?

Ugh.

I’ve never had this many church options in my life. I went to the same church for 17 years–my parents helped start it. When your parents are that involved, there’s really no other option. And most of the time, I liked it that way. When I went off to college, there were about ten feasible options within driving distance. Easy.

I’d like to blame the gluttony of churches, but that’s really not the problem here.

The fact is, probably at least 500 of the 700 churches here in Nashville are Christ-centered communities of broken believers loving and learning from God, from Jesus, together. That’s all I want.

I was so close to going to church today. I tied the last knot in my shoe, then sat back and my mind wandered. It wandered to places where I’ve found my community. And I realized that my “church” has never been an actual church, or even the people in a church. My church has always been with whom I have lived and shared my life.

This mutual edification, the vulnerability, the together-worship, the pointing each other back towards God, the celebrating . . . has all occurred within the shelter of living together. I realize that my college community experience may be a strange one, but when I lived in such close proximity with 30 girls who were sincerely trying to follow Jesus, it was more difficult not to have real community than it was to share our hearts with one another. And honestly, I think that’s how it should be. And it all started with being thrown together in one living space.

The institution of the modern-day church is a broken one. And it’s a sad but necessary truth that “in the real world” we have to push through the practice of Sunday morning to get to the every day living in Christ. And for new movers to an area, it’s incredibly draining and difficult.

When the church was just getting started, believers lived together, or at least in close proximity (Acts 2). They gave away all their excess of money and things to love one another well (v45). They worshipped together every day, shared precious meals and time with one another (v46). They enjoyed each others’ company and God was so evidently at work in this community of believers (v47).

Community groups, small groups, life groups, whatever you want to call them . . . I think this is where we (meaning the Body of Christ, the Church as a whole) should start. We’ve got the order flip-flopped. In all our haste to try to make people feel safe and noticed-but-not-too-noticed and accepted-but-not-too-accepted, we’ve thrust newcomers into a large crowd of tightly-knit people on Sunday morning. We’re hoping this rather isolating experience will somehow make them feel loved. We’ve automatically made outsiders of the people we are trying to reach.

All this, and what now?

I’m not particularly angry at the 700 churches in Nashville. I am angry about how difficult it is to enter into life-together-community. I knew it would be, stepping out of my close-knit wing at college. Churches have tried so hard to break down barriers. I appreciate the effort. But there is still so much barrier breaking to accomplish. Can we ever manufacture what actual living together can help create?

Why do churches that start out in a house ever leave? Why not expand into other nearby homes instead of creating yet another building that shouts singularity and institution? Why not make the act of daily living together a priority instead of trying to expand, expand, explode?

I’ve probably raised more questions than answers, and this blog post is very long. You’re welcome.

Still, I will think less of church shopping and more of church hoping. And I will maneuver through the awkwardness and the too-many options and the buildings we have created that are shadows of actual living together because I know that at your core, Church, your heart is in the right place. And when I get to your core, I will find that community I long for, a community I miss more and more with each passing day.

It’ s the taste I have had of real Christ-centered community that keeps me on the move. If you have never tasted that kind of community, I have more compassion for you than ever. Please don’t give up on the Church and even on little “c” churches, fellow twenty-somethings, thirty-somethings, forty-and-beyond somethings. I know it’s hard. People mess up and hurt you. People try to understand, but don’t. But we’re all just trying to ride the waves of a messed-up world with Jesus as our Navigator. Hang in there, make every effort to enter into a community of Jesus-followers, and you’ll finally see God’s glory shining through the cracks of manmade brokenness.

And it will be worth the wait.

24 Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. 25 And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near. – Hebrews 10:24-25

[[Questions for Us All]]

What does your Christ-following community look like? Are you a part of such a community? Why/why not? Have you given up going to a church? What could be the benefits of not giving up on the Church’s broken efforts of loving you?