I chased my son down the aisles and between the pews at the small church where I attend Bible study. His blonde hair flapped behind him and he wobbled from side to side, crashing into ancient wood, and laughing hysterically.
The sweetness of the moment took me back to my own childhood. I saw my brother and I hiding in the balcony waiting for the church bells to ring; running through the basement hallways; hunching over an old book in the library; feeling the heat of my Sunday school teacher’s death stare from the choir, while I slouched and played tic tac toe with my neighbor on pew four, right side.
One of my favorite memories is learning to spell P-N-E-U-M-O-N-I-A on a yellow post-it before church with my Great Aunt Fairy. She opened the church on Sundays, placed the flowers on the vestibule, prepared the library for visitors, and used the extra time to teach me words and sometimes, scripture.
We were a tiny bunch of ragamuffins, the kind of Baptist church that posted the attendance numbers on the wall, and frowned upon women wearing pants. Still, the tenderness of the place overwhelms my heart. Mr. Freeman would preach a sermon, and at the end of every service, he would stand off the stage and invite those who needed prayer, or those who felt called, to come forward, while we sang a hymn. We would sing every verse and start over, if we needed to, because he felt confident God would move on someone’s heart.
I remember when He moved on mine.
I was seven and my little heart was pounding in my chest. I felt the tangible love of God overshadow my anxiety about being seen, and I excused myself out of the row and walked into Mr. Freeman’s embrace. I remember he kneeled down to hug me, then prayed for me and he and Aunt Fairy stood next to me in the receiving line, where folks could encourage me and welcome me into the family of God.
The next week, my beautiful mom dressed me in white for my baptism. My Aunt Fairy gave me a Bible and underlined verses for me to read. She played a pivotal role in my life. She never married; she felt called to serve God. Aunt Fairy cared for people in the community. We often would prepare lunch for someone in need, or cut flowers for a neighbor, or walk and visit the sick and shut-in list from the bulletin. We prayed, read a verse from the little bread bin on the table and ate. Communion and fellowship weren’t Christianese; they were the heartbeat of our faith.
I never imagined walking away from that place, but in my late teens, I made some choices out of line with my convictions. I felt a great deal of shame, not just because of my choices, but also because I had problems I didn’t think the church could fix. I had secrets I thought I couldn’t share. Also, in my immaturity, I am embarrassed to say, I didn’t recognize the personal, loving, effective discipleship I was receiving. Everything in the culture was screaming at me for bigger, better, more, and I did not appreciate the way God hemmed me in through my family and my faith.
In my twenties, I ran from my pain. (Though I didn’t always know it.) I chased shiny things. I hustled hard. It all caught up with me, and even with enough recovery under my belt to be a healthier person, I still didn’t know how to slow down and settle into what I had. It never felt like enough, and I guess, in a way, I never felt like enough. So I chased and I ran towards what I thought would be a better way, a better life, more achievements, more momentum, more spiritual highs, instead of the hard work of reciprocity, meals, scripture, solitude, words. Fellowship. Communion. Because I had leaned into the culture more than the Bible, I didn’t understand that relationship, not achievement, is the currency of the Kingdom.
Meeting Cody was a gateway to living this theology. His friends had dinners consistently, laughed, played, prayed and worshipped. They had a holistic perspective on the work of God, and the work of God, was relationship. It reigned supreme, and not at the expense of their responsibilities, but at the center of them. His love changed me, and helped me return to something familiar and old, but not obsolete – a table, the Spirit, my neighbor, one another.
And having received love, I found in me the strength to be broken again. I found in me a conviction that less was the path to more, and I am shedding the skin of pride, materialism, consumerism and privilege. I am fully coming to understand that calling myself a Disciple means Jesus’s blood flows through my veins, and at the cross, the ground is level. All of us, regardless of our context, our history, our mistakes, our color, class and gender, are worthy of love and this is the foundation of justice.
Only in the last five years have I allowed God to undo the cultural truths that are biblical lies – the belief that bigger is better, that more is the path to success, that power is the same as love. Watching Levi play in the pews was a reminder of how far I’ve come. When it comes to love and humility, I am an amateur at best, but I am committed to living out the gospel in my small corner of existence and pursuing freedom as a basic human right and maybe this little light of mine, can shine enough to help others see.
Friend, I hope you light up the darkness today. Your light is so very beautiful.
“The greatest issue facing the world today, with all its heartbreaking needs, is whether those who, by profession or culture, are identified as ‘Christians’ will become disciples – students, apprentices, practitioners – of Jesus Christ, steadily learning from him how to live the life of the Kingdom of the Heavens into every corner of human existence.” Dallas Willard