Becca picked me up for church today. My car stalled in a grocery store parking lot yesterday and is now at the mechanic’s. It can be hard and humbling to ask for help especially when your car broke down again so it was thoughtful of her to proactively text asking if I wanted a ride.
“Can I give you a ride to church tomorrow?”
It was easier to say yes to this specific offer than to initiate a conversation with my other friends who had offered, “If you need a ride let me know.” It is easier to say, “yes,” than to say, “Can I take you up on that ride you offered?”
If I were in Becca’s shoes, I would have offered me a ride simply because Becca is the Children’s Director at our church it was probably easier to drive out of her way to pick someone up so they could teach the Kid City lesson they were supposed to teach that week rather than having to find a substitute teacher or teaching the lesson herself. But, because it was Becca, I doubt that even crossed her mind. Or, at least if it did, it added mild motivation to a decision she’d already made to help out a friend because she’s awesome like that.
When Mike shared about Kingdom First, our church’s capital campaign to help reduce the debt on our building so both the building and our finances can reach more people, he shared a brief testimony about how God had used City Life Church to work in his life. He explained that last week he was feeling distant from God and asked God for both the trust and faith that he felt he was lacking. He had prayed about it, shared his desire with our pastor and went about his day. The following morning his dad texted him saying he felt God had given him two words to share with him: trust and faith.
I was impressed that Mike didn’t feel close to God and asked God for what he was missing. When people say things like, “I totally felt God’s presence during worship today!” or “Didn’t you feel God working in there?!” (because people do say stuff like that) I usually smile and nod and say something about something but I have never felt what they felt. I have come to believe I am just not sensitive to spiritual things in that particular way or that my personality causes me to experience things differently. But there was something about the simplicity of Mike saying, “I don’t have this but I want it,” and him simply asking God for it because he believed God cared enough to want to hear his request that gave me courage to ask for something from God for myself.
So during the prayer time during the first service I asked God for a sense of his presence and closeness. Nothing magical happened and, after prayer, I was dismissed, along with the kids, to Kid City.
All God asked Naaman to do to be healed was to dip himself in the river seven times. But Naaman didn’t want to do it because he was better than that. He was too good to dip himself in a dirty foreign river. He wanted to do something great, to earn, pay for, or justify his healing. But God, through a servant (he didn’t even get to talk with the prophet, Elisha, face to face!), told him to do something that was basically nothing and it was almost too hard for him because of how insignificant it was.
And that’s what I got to talk with the kids about today. About how we don’t earn God’s grace or love, about how it’s a free gift. There was a multiple choice question at the end of the lesson that asked, “What do people need to do today to earn their salvation?” Option “A,” which most of the kids chose initially said, “Go to church, read your Bible and pray.” Option “C” said, “Nothing, it is a free gift.” We talked through why we do these things (go to church, read the Bible, and pray) even though they don’t earn salvation and how salvation is a free gift from God and as I saw the kids changing their answer from “A” to “C” and understanding the significance of the distinction I thought, “Yes! This is the Gospel!” The Gospel is that I don’t earn anything from God but throw myself at his love and mercy and find hope and wholeness and belonging.
I thought about how I grew up in the church and had internalized a message that I’m sure my teachers didn’t intend to teach, that I became good enough for God when I did the right things and that when I didn’t do those things, God was disappointed in me and my salvation was at risk. By answering “A” I suspected that many of these kids were headed down the same road I had and as their answers changed (both on paper and, hopefully, in their hearts) I thought and hoped and prayed that we were doing the real Gospel-work of dismantling that lie before it could take deep root in the soil of their hearts. Trusting that salvation comes as a free gift, by grace through faith, frees us up to pray and go to church and read our Bibles out of love and from a place of freedom rather than from a place of fear or as a way to attempt to earn our salvation. May this truth allow these precious kids to live more abundant lives.
And then they ran from one end of the room to the green wall (the River Jordan) and back 7 times because that’s how many times Naaman had to dip in the river…but that was mostly just to get their energy out (you’re welcome parents).
LaMarcus sat with me in church today. He’s six and the son of dear, dear friends of mine. His siblings (he’s got seven of them!) were scattered around the sanctuary with different adults who loved them and with whom they loved being around. He braided my hair, rummaged around in my pursed and found a granola bar that he politely asked if he could eat and sang along with me in worship.
As our pastor was introducing the prayer time, LaMarcus asked if we could go up. Our church has an altar where you can kneel and pray and be prayed with. Though I don’t often (ever?) go up during this time, I had already decided that I wanted to today and I was happy not to have to go alone. We knelt and prayed together and were quickly joined by friends who prayed with us. Maranada was on my left with her arm around my shoulder and Rachel sat next to LaMarcus who had laid his head on the upper step and wrapped her arm around him and rested her hand on mine and they prayed and we prayed.
I don’t know why he wanted to go up there but as he held my hand during the prayer and rested sweetly on the steps and as we were surrounded by friends who prayed for us I was profoundly grateful for a love that transcends familial, racial and economic boundaries.
I felt like I was part of a community of people. My brothers and sisters were standing with me in prayer. I know some of their struggles; they know some of mine. Probably they assumed, in that moment, that I was struggling with the fact that our car died again and all the stress that goes along with that –financially, relationally, and practically—but I was asking God to set the feet of my husband and I on solid ground. To stand us firmly on himself instead of being so swayed by our emotions and circumstances. Even without knowing this, they prayed beautiful prayers over me and I thought, “You don’t ever have to feel alone if you don’t want to,” because I have these people who are willing to pray with me and step up and love me if I will simply reach out and sometimes reaching out means letting a six year old little boy lead you to the altar.
The sermon today was about the implications of the Gospel and the DNA of our church. Specifically, Pastor Christy preached about the practice of equitable relationships. In the Kingdom of God we are not all the same but we are all of equal worth. While acknowledging that we have different needs, different resources, different social and economic statuses, she reminded us that the Gospel levels the playing field and we have the job, the often challenging, sometimes awkward job of building real relationships with people who are really different than us.
As she described what this looked like I cried. The picture she painted, both of the reality of what life is often like and of what the Kingdom of God could look like on earth, in this neighborhood, in this church it was so beautiful that I just cried.
When going into communion, Pastor Adam mentioned the scandal of meals in the early church, where men, women, slaves, masters, children and adults were all invited to the same table. “May we experience the scandal of the table,” he said as he invited us forward to take communion in pairs and groups, but not with people we knew well. Instead he invited us to awkwardly share communion with people we didn’t know with the intention of crossing comfortable lines, initiating awkward conversations and practicing equitable relationships. And so I cried even more as I watched people go forward and, instead of forming a single-file line, form lines 2-4 people wide. I watched friends and strangers share communion together and it was beautiful because it was the Gospel, the Kingdom of God on earth.
And then I realized that God had answered my prayer to feel his presence, but he didn’t do it magically through a feeling in my spirit. He did it through the hands of LaMarcus, Maranda and Rachel. He did it through the hugs of Jacobi and Sharon and Michelle at the end of the service. He did it through the words of Christy and Adam and the song choices of Nathan. He did it by showing the Gospel transform people through the simple act of getting communion with friends and strangers. I felt God’s presence through people, indirectly, in community. It was tangible, through literal hands not a “spiritual” feeling and, perhaps for that reason, it was the most deeply I have ever felt the presence of God.