Sunday, November 22, 2009

Thanksgiving: A Love Story

When I was a young mother, we attended a growing church in Phoenix, Arizona, which was to be the place that formed me as an adult. Several extended families—brothers and sisters with their spouses and children, some with parents or grandparents—made Desert Springs Bible Church their church home from the early days of the church’s existence, which began shortly before we began attending in 1981. I envied the relationships I saw between these extended families. Something about these grown siblings, worshipping together and maintaining regular contact with one another through their shared church activities, essentially raising their children together, sharing values and meals and in many ways their lives, created a longing in my heart for something similar.

Since the time I left for college at age 17, my family never again regularly worshipped together. As each of us left home for college and marriage and all the other usual adult activities, we somehow never ended up in the same church again, at least not all at the same time. Of course some of this was because we didn’t always live in the same town, but some of it was due to divergent ideas about what church should be, divergent needs and expectations, and divergent preferred worship styles. I could not see how the longing to have my extended family with me at church would ever be fulfilled, so I suppressed it. Eventually we moved to the Seattle area and found a church home here.

During and after my divorce in 2006, I briefly attended a friend’s church while I was trying to get my feet back beneath me, and I will always be grateful for the care they extended to me, but I never felt completely at home there. When Darrel and I became friends (I had bought the condo next door to his), we eventually visited each other’s churches. Immediately, I felt welcome at Shoreline Covenant Church, a feeling I chalked up to being with Darrel, because everyone who has met him knows and loves him. But I did notice that two of his brothers and their families attended SCC as well. The alternate visits continued, as did my relationship with Darrel.

Eventually, much to the surprise of both of us, Darrel and I decided to get married. And, much to Darrel’s surprise, I told him that I wanted to go to SCC permanently. He had been willing, and indeed expected, to attend the church that was my temporary resting place during that long transition in my life. One of the reasons that SCC was so attractive to me was Darrel’s extended family. Finally, the longing I had carried in my heart for so many years to worship and be regularly involved in the lives of an extended family in church together could be fulfilled.

I believe that when the Bible says, “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4), it means not only that he will give us things we desire, but also that he is actually the one who creates the desire within us. I believe God planted the desire for an extended family worship experience long before I ever met Darrel. And when that desire was met, I sensed the nearness of God in a new way. When I sit in church, and Darrel’s brother Doug and wife Katie are sitting behind us, and their daughter Sarah and her husband and three children are nearby, and Darrel’s brother Dan and wife Cindy and their two daughters are sitting next to us, I sense God’s love for me all over again.

But there’s more. I’ve been attending SCC regularly for about two years or so now, and I find that I look forward to church, can’t wait to be there, am sorry when circumstances or illness force me to miss church. Maybe you are the kind of person who has always loved church, but I can’t honestly say that I have always really wanted to be there; sometimes I have gone to church just because I should, not because anything in particular draws me there. But it’s different at Shoreline. Although there is nothing flashy about the Sunday morning experience—we don’t even have a video projection system, for pete’s sake—my heart is filled with a gladness so profound that I am almost embarrassed by it each week as I await the start of the service. As I have pondered this recently, I have identified a few things that draw me back again and again.

First of all, SCC people are genuinely welcoming. I know that being with Darrel was a natural opener for many people to talk to me, but that doesn’t explain it all. I went to a women’s event which my sister-in-law Cindy promised to attend with me, but at the last moment she couldn’t go, so I went by myself. Most of the women there did not know me personally, but I was busy in conversation and activity for the entire morning. At no point did my natural shyness (yes, I know it’s hard to believe, but I actually find the process of meeting new people to be somewhat grueling) win the day; I went home glad that I had been there, and with names attached to several new faces. Every Sunday someone asks me a specific question about a specific detail of my life. Often I have a conversation with someone I have never met before who wants to ask me a question because, for instance, they heard I was going to seminary. SCC’s members are not just doing their duty; they are spilling forth the self-giving, others-centered love of God. They are genuinely interested in one another’s lives. I want to be like them; I try to emulate them, to copy them, to memorize their love-strategies, because I have been loved by their interest in me.

Secondly, SCC provides space for silence, built into the fabric of worship. I cannot remember in my nearly 50 previous years of church attendance a regular experience of silence as a legitimate and welcomed part of worship. A period of silence shortly after the service begins invites us to orient ourselves to God’s presence “in the quietness of our hearts.” A period for silence and sharing our needs and joys, where no one is expected to speak but we may if we wish share something that is on our hearts, often comes later in the service. Occasionally, we are invited to come forward and pray with a staff member or board member, and we are specifically asked to give one another the freedom to participate without morbid curiosity. We even have whole services devoted to silence—without music, without conversation, with Scripture readings and prayer and little else. Our services are not rushed, not cramped; we have time to breathe and reflect between this song and that reading and the next prayer. We have time to sense God’s interaction with us instead of somehow trying to demand it with a ceaseless flow of words, music, and noise. The ebb and flow of silence and sound creates context and space for me to worship more fully.

Thirdly, although almost all the people I know at SCC take their relationship with God pretty seriously, they don’t take themselves too seriously. I love the way Pastor Mike says in Sunday School, “Here’s a question. Now I want you to read my mind before you answer.” Or Pastor Erika says, “I am the most agenda-less person I know.” Or “You see what’s listed in the bulletin? We’re not going to do that,” or “Here’s where I was hoping we would get in this lesson. We didn’t get there.” Even the leaders of our congregation seem to accept themselves—with all of their gifts and limitations—with good humor. They accept that sometimes God’s agenda is different than ours, that the best-laid plans sometimes go awry. They stay calm. They are good models for those of us who sometimes get too excited when things don’t go according to plan.

Fourthly, SCC gets itself. The first Sunday I was there, I read in the bulletin: “SHORELINE COVENANT CHURCH is the name given to a group of people seeking to be, individually and together, everything God wants us to be.” I like that; we don't claim to have arrived; we are all becoming together. This is a place where I was accepted as I was, given an opportunity to serve and grow, and without any sense of guilt or pressure, encouraged to continue becoming all that God had created me to be. This is a body that seeks to have a meaningful impact in the local community, and while still struggling to discern what that might mean, does what it can right now in the form of service to the local elementary school or a Halloween Family Fun event or gifts of safety supplies to day laborers. And so (and this list is far from complete):

•To all of you who came to the Sunday School class that Darrel and I taught together and claimed to be blessed by it
•To Audrey and Barb K. for serving cake and asking me about my life every week
•To Barb W for your kindness to me when I first showed up with Darrel
•To Candace for remembering my daughter
•To Cindy for hosting a wedding shower for me
•To Debbie for asking about my son in Iraq
•To Dennis for catering our wedding when you thought there would be 25 guests and it was more like 200
•To Doug and Katie for Tuesday nights, even when I was just Darrel’s neighbor
•To Doug for inviting me to sing on worship team
•To Erika for sharing in my English class
•To Flo and Keith for Shakespeare
•To Kailee and Macy for being the most beautiful flower girls ever
•To Mike for lending me books
•To Patty and John for helping out at the reception even though you didn’t know me
•To Sam for processing with me every Monday night
•To Sue for the gift of your violin
•To so many others, too numerous to mention here, who have loved me with God’s self-giving love and enabled me to grow in my love for God and others—thank you from the bottom of my heart. You are why I love Shoreline Covenant Church; you are Shoreline Covenant Church.

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