Thursday, November 1, 2012

Nov. 1: Today I'm Grateful church

Honestly, I've been thinking about this all day long and I have had the HARDEST time narrowing down which thing I want to name for today's grateful post.  But I finally decided tonight.  Late tonight.

Today I'm grateful for my church.

And when I say "my church", I don't just mean the one that Larry & I are currently members of.

You see, I grew up at a Southern Baptist church.  I spent every single Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night (and LOTS of days in between) in that building.  My mom had a key and taught all sorts of classes, Bible studies, ladies' groups, etc over the years.  We used to have to arrive early for every event and usually we'd be there late cleaning up so my church was sort of my second home.  I can't tell you how many hours I spent playing on the piano and organ in the chapel (because I really thought I could teach myself how to play and none of those sweet people ever told me that I was driving them crazy banging on the keys.)  I remember lock ins where sleep never happened.  I remember youth group boyfriends and crushes.  I remember practicing gymnastics-style flips on the bars that separated the north parking lot from a huge drop-off between the lot and the building.  (I'm sure that sounds foreign to anyone who didn't grow up at this church, but all my PHBC friends know exactly which bars I'm talking about.)  I remember Sunday School classes and bowling trips and skating trips and camps every summer.

But more than all those funny childhood and meaningful youth years memories, I remember meeting Jesus at a revival when I was 8 years old.  I remember people who poured into me and filled me with Scripture.  I remember mentors who taught me lessons about who He is, who He was and who He will always be.  I remember mission trips as a teen that rocked my world and changed me forever as I served orphans in the poorest ghettos of Mexico.  I remember the foundations that were built all those years in that church.

And then I met Larry.  He didn't grow up in church, but went occasionally with friends and family who attended various churches.  When we met, he was attending a local Independent Christian church.  (Yeah, I didn't know that was a denomination either.  In the south, there aren't many of them so it was new to me.)  I remember going with him just to visit and falling in love with their contemporary chorus-style worship.  I remember the fiery pastor who was excited about God, but still so darn personable that you couldn't help but adore him and his family.  He was honest and real and he was a part of the life of this young college boy's life (Larry's), and in turn, he was a part of mine.  That was so cool to me!  Cool enough that we asked him to perform our wedding.

After we got married & moved to the first town where we'd live, we found a little teeny Independent Christian church in a tiny town about 50 miles from our apartment.  I laugh about that now, because we were willing to drive so far to attend this itty-bitty church when there were 100 churches in the town where we lived.  I can't remember the rationale behind that decision, but it made sense at the time.  That little church was only "home" for about 4 months, but the people were so sweet to the young newlywed couple who showed up all giggly and watched us hold hands in the back row while we sang our hymns.

When we left that first little apartment and set down roots for the first time, we joined an amazing church.  It was another Independent Christian church.  We had been recommended to visit this one and it only took 1 or 2 visits for us to decide it was the right place for us.  We were still young newlyweds, but we were welcomed like family.  I suppose living in a college town and being (then) college-aged, it wasn't uncommon for this particular crowd of people to welcome in young kids and treat them like family.  But the way they loved us during those years made all the difference in the world to us!  We became a part of their small groups, learning so much during those years.  They helped us welcome our first baby to the world, threw a shower for us, brought us meals, prayed over us and our little girl.  They came to our home for meals and Bible study and encouraged us to do the same at their homes.  We were only a couple of hours from our own families, but we never felt like we were missing our moms or dads or aunts or uncles with all these people around.  When I got snowed in at work while 4 months pregnant, the pastor's family opened their home to me for a few days until we could safely get my car (and me!) home.  When Larry had to have emergency gall bladder surgery, Savannah was only 4 months old.  We were out of a paycheck for a few weeks and this sweet group of believers showed up at our door with a check to cover our mortgage.  What a gift!  We hadn't even considered asking them to help, so it was so encouraging to see them offer to do that for us.  I guess that was the first place we felt like "grown ups" in our own church...not just kids attending where their parents were members.

Somewhere along the way, we moved again, leading us to the town where we live now.  We visited some gosh awful number of places, trying to find a church that was a good "fit" for us.  I compared every single one of them with the amazing place we'd left behind, even considering the crazy option of making the hour + drive back there every week because we were having such a hard time finding a new 'home'.  Savannah was 14 months old at the time and in the middle of horrific stranger anxiety.  I had given up on ever finding a place and was weary from the search, especially with a fearful, sobbing toddler every week.  I told Larry to go every Sunday until he found a place ...and then we stumbled onto it!  One morning, he was driving home from (night shift) work and saw a church we hadn't really noticed before.  He stopped and the very-early-hours-janitor was there.  He gave him some pamphlets and info about the church for us to look over.  He brought them home, we read them and right away fell in love!  Our first visit felt comfortable and pretty much right away, we knew this was "it".  We settled in at this Bible church and stayed for the next 7 years.  Over those years, so much changed in our lives.

Larry and I struggled, and grew, many times over.  Our Sunday School class group became tighter knit than any other group of adult friends I've ever had before or since. We added two more babies to the family, and apparently that was the trend.  Most of the rest of our class did the same.  We joked that our class, which was called "All God's Children" should be renamed "Having God's Children".  We studied the Word with them, we watched marriages blossom and wither.  We prayed for each other.  We learned from each other.  We created bonds and accountability relationships with these people.  We had weekly playgroups.  The men hung out & had regular Guys' Nights.  Larry went back to college & got his bachelor's degree. We walked through Savannah's four eye surgeries, Larry's 2 shoulder surgeries and Larry's head-on car wreck that scared us all to death. Our oldest came to know Jesus as her Savior and was baptized. Larry went to seminary, which was partly funded by that amazing church who believed in him and wanted to help him pursue full-time ministry.  He was encouraged and blessed by so many who helped him fulfill that dream and calling.  When he was hired to his first pastor job and we had to leave that amazing place we'd called home for so many years, there was a major grieving process.  We were super excited for what the future held, but spent a long time mourning the loss of those people in our lives.  Fortunately we still lived locally and getting together was easy, but it was always a little strained and a little awkward because we didn't have the same connection anymore.

At our new church home, where Larry was on staff, we quickly fell into step with the other pastors' families and grew to love a whole new church full of people.  They walked with us through the adoption (and loss) of two precious children.  They were there during Larry's spinal fusion surgery.  Samuel and Sarah both trusted Jesus there and were baptized.  But more than anything they were there for us through, we were allowed to be a part of their lives!  We got to be there for births time and time again (well, not in the actual room, but close!)  Larry was asked to be in the room with many families as they said goodbye to their loved ones, and spent hours praying with them and performing funerals afterward.  We were allowed to be intimately involved with the hard, secret, ugly details of their lives, allowed to pray with them and offer support during times when no one wants anyone to see the stuff that they hide from everyone else.  We got to lead children and adults to the Lord.  Larry was able to teach, to guide, to share life.  We were both able to counsel and to be there through some really tough things that our friends there faced.  Sure, Larry was on staff as a pastor and did the vast majority of the ministerial role, but we were there as a team in many ways.  And our season in that church was crucial to who we are today.  We were only there for 4 1/2 years, but I am grateful for the time spent there.  I learned so many things during that time.  I watched God move in miraculous ways.  I watched Him provide for us and speak to us through prophecy and messages given by members of the church at various times.  What an awesome 4.5 years!

In 2009, we returned to the Bible church where we spent 7 years before Larry went into full-time ministry.  It's a whole new church now...a new staff, about 80% new members, new programs, new ministries.  For a while, I kept comparing it to the way it was before and had a hard time embracing the 'new'.  But when I finally did, I realized that this 'new' church is wonderful in a hundred other ways.

Our kids have stated that they have learned more here about the Bible than they have anywhere else.  I love hearing that!  Savannah is serving in the nursery.  Samuel is helping with the tech/media stuff for the elementary kids.  Sarah has made friends and is getting more excited about taking part in youth events all the time.  I have been sooo blessed to get to know the children of the church (and their families) in the past few years as I've co-taught a Sunday School class for the 4 & 5 year olds.  I've made new friends and laughed, but I've also cried and loved and learned along the way.  I've been reminded of the beauty of the hearts of these people who have been serving for years, who have never stopped giving, who have poured their hearts out for the families of the church and our community.  This church has helped us (financially) more times than I can count over the past few years.  And for that, I am eternally grateful.  They are such fantastic people.  Enough just can't be said.

And to top off all the other awesome churches that I've been blessed to be a part of over the years, I'm honored to serve in a childcare capacity at two other local churches who love me and treat me like one of their own.  In fact, people from both churches have repeatedly asked me where I am on Sundays because they missed me in church, only to find out that I don't actually go to their church, but am a member elsewhere.  They've seen me with their babies and just assumed that I am a regular part of the place.  I love that!

So you see, I have so many really GREAT churches that have influenced me over the years.  The foundational church, the growing years churches, the ministry church where we got to serve and grow even more, the beautiful place where we are now.  And that's not even to mention all the places where Larry's filled the pulpit over the years where we've been treated like family who stopped by for Sunday lunch.

I know that no church is perfect and all of them have some really screwed up flaws.

I won't deny that much of the world is correct in their view of hypocritical, egg-headed Christians who have treated them like dirt.  (But trust me, that one hurts me just as much as it hurts the people who were treated poorly!)

I don't try to claim to have it all together myself.  I surely don't.

But I will say this.

Without the influence and the value of my church families over the years, I can't imagine where I would be today.  I am forever grateful for the body of Christ that I can call my extended family.  To all of you who've been part of a church with me since my birth, here's a big hug for you!  Wrap your arms around your shoulders & squeeze!  Today, I am grateful for YOU.

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