AfterWords is a series of community-contributed reflections intended to further the conversations that begin during Parish sermons.
A 3-Minute Read
“If you don’t want to go where we’re going, then you need to get off the bus.” Paraphrase of Jim Collins, Good to Great
We moved to the Atlanta area with great hope for a fresh start. For me, it was a homecoming; I’m one of those rare native Atlantans. For my husband, it was a wide-open field of prospective jobs post graduate school. For all of us, it was a chance to find a new community.
Several church possibilities had been suggested to us. We visited them in random order. On one of those church-shopping Sundays, I was surprised to find myself crying. I had loved our dear friends at the church we’d attended in Dallas, but the corporate worship ran…dry. But this church! The singers and band were passionate and engaged, body and soul, and the worship engaged my heart. The teaching was inspired, encouraging and challenging. I left that Sunday feeling I’d come home in a more significant way than just returning to my childhood roots. Along with my tears, I had such great expectations! Our family jumped into the church with all of our eight feet. It was a slice of heaven on earth.
For a while. A long while, actually. I felt “blessed beyond measure” to be part of such a fellowship.
But over time, I began to feel angry as I left church each weekend. I really wasn’t sure what was going on. I had questions. I was bringing them to church: to leaders, to my friends, to my small group. I read books. I sought counsel. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me, what was wrong with my beloved church. Had my expectations been off?
I was present as a church leader explained to a small gathering how churches can learn from secular best practices. Jim Collin’s book Good to Great was a mega-best seller at the time and corporations everywhere were employing his leadership methods. The leader referenced Collin’s famous quote about getting the right people on the bus and in the right seats – and getting the wrong people off. I wondered: was I not in the right seat? Or worse: was I being subtly invited to get off the bus? Following a counselor’s prompts, and with my husband’s full support, I decided to vacate my seat. I entered a wilderness experience, years of “wandering in the desert,” after years of blessing. I still had Christian community, but I was officially churchless. God was present, but I was adrift. Little did I realize that I was mirroring Jesus’s experience of baptism blessing followed by being driven into his own wilderness.
Jordan read Luke 3:15 on Sunday: “…the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John…” The people were expecting the Messiah. Could John the Baptizer be The One for whom they’d been looking, praying, hoping? John quickly puts that hope to rest: “‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful that I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals’” (Luke 3:16). John points them to The One who is the true answer to their questions; to The One who will fulfill their expectations.
We, too, often look to church with our expectation and questions, don’t we? I had taken my expectations, my questions borne of a lifetime of wounding (no different from anyone else) to my former church. I didn’t have the eyes to see that my focus was off; my anger came from hopes misplaced on people and programs, things that could never fully fill the emptiness in my heart. We come to the church community with high hopes of finding kindred spirits and rest for our souls, for meaningful engagement in spiritual life and kingdom impact. We often find those good things in church. But disillusionment is guaranteed at some point if our hearts aren’t first focused on The One – Jesus – to provide the answer to our deepest hopes, fears and desires. The good things aren’t The One. Church is never The One. As Jordan reminded us, not even The Parish.
John Eldredge says this in his book All Things New:
I always felt it strange that God needed to command us to love him. (It is the first and greatest of all the commandments.) Now I see better. When God calls us to love him as our “first love,” it is not only because he deserves to hold that place in our hearts, but also because he knows what pain will come when we get that out of order. If you give the part of your soul that is meant for God to lesser things, they will break your heart because they cannot possibly come through for you in the ways God can…Keeping God as our first love, we are not destroyed when others fail to love us well…Anchored in True Love, our hearts can go on to love. Because we have first things first, as the saying goes.
The Parish is moving intentionally to build new expressions of community within our body, and I’m bubbling with anticipation. I’m also thankful that we’re being reminded to indeed keep first things first, our focus on The One. “Only one thing is necessary,” said Jesus to Martha, as Mary focused her attention on him (Luke 10:42). As we, too, set our expectations on him, take our questions to him, then our community has its best opportunity to flourish.
We need eyes on Jesus. We need each other. We’ll no doubt both stumble and triumph as we try to figure out our own expression of community at The Parish. As we move forward, we can rest, knowing our place in Church is secure: “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6).
We don’t need to find a seat on the bus.
Thanks be to God.