I like things organized and categorized. It’s not “a place for everything and everything in it’s place” cause Doug and I seem to live in chaos. But when it comes to my understanding of how things work, I like there to be a box. You are my friend because you say nice things about me and make me feel good. You are not a friend because you don’t say nice things. You gave birth to me so you are my mom. You’re my sister because we share DNA/grew up together/were together on all the major holidays. I like well-defined relationships. I like knowing where I stand, how I’ll be received and how to guard myself against attack.
But relationships outside my immediate family have been sporadic and undefinable. I went through a season recently where I heard about this thing called Christian Community and longed desperately for it, but it seemed out of my reach. I wanted people who would walk alongside me and daily breathe in and out the gospel with me, teaching me and letting me teach them. I wanted someone who would mentor me. I wanted someone who I could daily share my struggles with about loving my kids well and serving my husband. I wanted someone I could mentor and pour into and watch her thrive and grow. There were bursts and seasons where one of these things would happen. But overall, none of these endeavors went beyond a year. I lived and breathed bitterness. I did what I was told to do to foster these kinds of relationships, and nothing happened. I blamed the church for not taking me seriously, or taking a big enough interest in me. For losing me in the crowd, even though I’d paid my dues.There is a lot of arrogance and wounded pride wrapped up in this package.
So God beat me down. In the most gentle way imaginable He deconstructed my boxes. My first experience with this happened on the trip I took to Africa two years ago. It was my experience with this girl leading up to and on the trip that challenged my view of this “boxiness.” She is younger than me. She is not married. She is kid-less. But she taught me (and continues to teach me) about the never-stopping, never giving up, always and forever love that God has for me. She, more than any other person I know, believes that she is created by God for beauty. Somehow she gets things about God’s character that are hard for me to believe, so in His mercy He brought her into my life to teach me. And I was floored. I continue to be humbled. She teaches me.
But it was in a conversation with some other women that God taught me about His design for relationships. They asked me if I was mentoring anyone, and I said no. They said her name. I immediately shook my head, thinking, “do you know how much she taught me? Do you know where she found me and where she led me to? This place of freedom and beauty where I get to dance knowing my Jesus loves me, simply because He created me? And you’re telling me this beautiful, witty, funny, smart, life-breathing person is learning something from me?” I didn’t believe it. I still have trouble wrapping my head around it. We haven’t had the relationship talk. But I do know this: in our time together, she has gleaned something from me. There is no box for this. It’s just the gospel working itself out in a friendship.
And I’ve realized that church isn’t something to define. It’s not a box or a category or something that has a clear cut beginning and end. Last night we had friends over for supper and because we all love Jesus, we talked about Jesus. This was church. Our conversation ebbed and flowed. I drank a little too much. A soon-to-be dad showed off his swaddling skills and wrapped a glass in a napkin. A few people received head massages. Kyler might have run around the house nearly naked. But it was church. There was an undercurring theme of “how do we live out the gospel and love people and love our church, in the midst of our bitterness and frustration?” The conversation was beneficial, fruitful and beautiful.
And I’ve seen this truth demonstrated as snapshots over the last few years–that really great conversation outside my kid’s school… That skype call with my sister as she pours out her heart about moving to Sudan… Singing songs with other believers on Sunday morning in Austin, or in a living room in Africa with no power and an acoustic guitar and my off-key voice lending something unique and memorable to the experience… A great conversation over coffee with a friend I see once a year where she exhorts me… THIS is church. There are no boxes or labels. It’s just loving the people God has brought into my life and pointing one another to Jesus. It’s hard. I’d much rather have that well-defined group that meets Wednesday nights, and studies Scripture and then finds a way to serve some orphans in Austin and internationally. Some way to track my growth. Some way to say, “see look, I’m doing the Christian thing.” But that just has not been my norm. Instead, I have snippets. I have conversations. So I’ve learned to embrace the places between the boxes and live there. It’s undefinable. But it is real. It is authentic.
And it’s transcendental. Because there is no box that can adequately contain these relationships, no box that encompasses what CHURCH is, there is much freedom. We are able so far as our culture, era, time of day, season of life, proximity, and cultural persecution to experience church in a variety of ways. I’m not sure there’s a right way or a wrong way to do church–barring anything Paul teaches against in 1 Corinthians (getting drunk on the Lord’s supper, sleeping with your father’s wife, being so loud and boisterous you distract from God, etc.). The point of gathering with other believers is to exhort and encourage one another in righteousness. It is our job to point one another to Jesus when once again our flesh fails. Church is important; Christian Community is a requirement for the believer. But it isn’t always identifiable or quantifiable. And it won’t look the same for every single believer.
That is the beauty of the gospel.