Anybody who knows me would call me a social butterfly. They might even joke that I go to church mainly for the coffee and fellowship. Well, they wouldn’t be far off. I so enjoy studying God’s word, singing rich worship songs, and hearing a gospel-centered sermon on Sunday morning. But I also enjoy gathering and talking with other believers, encouraging one another in the Lord. Isn’t that what draws most of us to a church—the people who welcome us and walk alongside us on the journey of faith?
Anything but Normal
Then came a pandemic, and as you know, things have changed drastically for churches and congregations across the country. COVID-19 hit, and we were left trying to figure out how to make Sundays normal when they are anything but normal.
When the pandemic first arrived, my church met virtually. It was novel and cool for the first couple of weeks, but before long the newness of the experience wore off. For the last few months, we have been worshipping together through a limited outdoor and indoor service. Most people wear masks and leave quickly. Between the wind, the heat, and tired kids, it is hard to stay present during the service. My mind wants to wander to my to-do list or to the problems in my life that I think I can solve (instead of listening to the sermon and hearing from the God who holds all things together). I struggled with these things before COVID, but they feel especially prevalent now.
Fellowship is the most difficult, because in order to hold services we must remain physically distant. Most people go home right away after the service. Conversation is hard. It is hard to know what to talk about except the “thing” that made fellowshipping hard in the first place. And no one actually wants to talk about the “thing” that is on our minds all the time. I am weary, and some Sundays I really don’t want to go. I would rather push against the hard than embrace it.
Encouragement When Church Feels Hard
The early church definitely knew something about hard. Between family divisions (Mark 10:29), disputes among church members (1 Cor. 6:5-6), and various forms of persecution and suffering(Acts 8:3, Heb.13:3), the believers of the early church definitely had reason to stop going. But this is exactly why Paul felt called and inspired by the Spirit to write and encourage the early churches in his letters….
On this day he looked more like a man than a boy. The gore of war had spattered and stained his person. Adrenaline laced fingers intwined themselves in the trophy’s scalp – a bodiless head swinging slack-jawed before the king’s throne.
David presented the head of the giant to King Saul. The king grunted his approval. The palace court humbled itself into silence. No warrior had been found to stand for Israel against the blasphemous enemy – none but a young shepherd with his sling shot and an unwavering faith in Yahweh.
From the corner of the room, King Saul’s son, Jonathan, watched and listened.
“Whose son are you, young man?” the king inquired.
Bowing his head, David replied, “I am the son of your servant Jesse the Bethlehemite.”
At that moment Jonathan’s heart swelled with affection. A love that only the power of Yahweh could provide burned within the young prince. Jonathan saw beyond the simple clothing and the country accent. He saw a brother in the Lord and a friendship that would endure for a lifetime.
If David could slay a seasoned warrior with a smooth river rock, what could he do with the proper equipment?
Pulling the young shepherd aside, Jonathan began to disrobe the finery he was born into. The opportunity to outfit a new hero would not be lost to the prince. Jonathan saw potential. He would play his part in shooting this champion to stardom!
Over David’s rough, wool tunic a royal robe was draped, and a fine belt was strapped. David’s heroic heart was protected by princely armor. A well-balanced sword and a finely strung bow completed the arsenal in the shepherd’s hands.
Jonathan gave David a royal outfitting. He gave his beloved friend power, protection, and a new identity.
David was a more than a man when he hit the return road home. He was a celebrity.
From every city, clogging every road, women surged forward with instruments and voice. Colorful skirts twirled in delight. Eyes sparkled with victory. Bracelets jingled on dainty wrists to the beat of the tambourines.
The contagious smiles reenergized David on this day that was for him. This day the women celebrated and sang:
Saul has struck down his thousands,
and David his ten thousands.
The Blessing of Godly Friendships
God unites people together for all sorts of reasons. He places encouragers to lift us up when we’ve hit a low point. He rallies champions when we’ve lost the power to fight another minute. He brings admonishers and counselors to guide us through sticky decisions. He gifts us lovers and friends to sweeten our days with laughter and joy.
Godly friends are easily identified by their actions…
Almost ten years ago, when I moved to South Africa, I had no idea how much of an impact this place would have on me. One of the greatest impacts on me is the value the African culture places on the family, as well as community. You see this in the way they sacrifice for one another. You see this in their sense of togetherness. And you see it in the way they come together and celebrate one another for special occasions, especially weddings. It is a community wide event, not just in attending the ceremony, but also in putting the event together. On that special day, hundreds of people come to celebrate the bride and groom.
That’s because their community is like a family. And in a similar way, so is the church.
The Body of Christ
In 1 Corinthians 12:12-30, Paul compares the church to the human body. He begins with “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many are one body, so it is with Christ.” Paul illustrates that while a body has a head, eyes, ears, etc. all those parts belong to the same body. So it is with the global church; there are many members scattered throughout the globe, but our oneness in Christ makes us family….
COVID-19 placed a drain on medical personnel we nurses didn’t see coming. We’ve managed infectious diseases before, handled cumbersome PPE, and even ventured into uncharted waters with a diagnosis we weren’t sure how to handle. But I must admit, the Monday morning when the COVID numbers at my hospital unit jumped into the double digits, and doubled again by the end of the week, pandemic seemed an appropriate word. I placed a call to my pregnant daughter, Anna, and told her that until I was no longer caring for these patients, it would be safest if I did not see them. My two-year-old granddaughter didn’t understand why she couldn’t go to Grandma’s.
On my way into work one morning a woman stopped me. “Can you get a message to my husband? I can’t go in, can I?” The eighty-something woman gripped her walker and seemed frantic. I recorded her message on my cell phone and left her on a nearby bench. Outside her husband’s hospital room, I grabbed a gown, shoe coverings, hair net, mask and face shield, and gloves. I put my cell phone in a clear plastic bag and prayed it wouldn’t obscure the picture too much. Her husband listened to the message as tears streamed down his face. He mouthed a thank-you through his nonrebreather.
I couldn’t do all the usual satisfying nurse things like hold his hand or give him a hug. Neither could I offer that to his wife. It felt so pathetic, holding up a cell phone in a plastic bag, hoping he could see her, hear her. Afterwards, I tramped back downstairs brushing past a coworker who asked if I was ok. I nodded a yes, but I meant no.
Outside, that sweet wife was waiting. At least I could tell her he heard her voice and seemed to know it was her. I swallowed hard, wrote my cell number down on a piece of paper and handed it to her. “Anytime you need to get a message to your husband, you call me. Anytime, ma’am. I will meet you here.”
We live by catchphrases such as , the past is the past; it happened so long ago; forget and move on. They are go-to sayings intended to shift us from a state of wallowing, ruminating, and circling the same mental track. We favor and praise them because they aid us in leaving behind regrettable, undesired experiences. So when I read the Apostle Paul’s prescription to remember in Ephesians 2:11-12 as I participated in the Hinged Bible Study on the book of Ephesians, I found myself struggling to register its importance.
Why are we to remember the former life when later, Paul instructs us to put off the old self? Furthermore, is remembering up to the individual or is remembering to be done in the context of community?
Let us first consider the why.
Why We Remember
Chapter 2 begins by reviewing our history— you were, you once walked, we all once lived— before pivoting in verse 4 with an emphatic, “But God” statement and pointing our attention to the source, reason, and purpose of our redemption. The walk down memory lane is not to elicit guilt or shame but to glory in the difference the gospel makes. God’s “rich mercy” and “great love” “made us alive together with Christ” and “raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”
The purpose for remembering is also so that we would stand firm in the finished work of the blood of Christ; his blood brought us who were once far off near (verse 13) and inducted us from strangers and aliens to citizens (verse 19). Furthermore, our stories of how we came to be are to be remembered— and remembered viscerally.
In the 2006 film Amazing Grace, the British abolitionist William Wilberforce, seizes an opportune moment to capture the imagination and conscious of elite Londoners. They are gathered aboard a cruise ship and pass Madagascar, a slave ship. As they near it, they are repulsed by a putrid foul smell that Wilberforce names as “the smell of death.” When they try to filter the stench with their handkerchief and hands, Wilberforce confronts them. He says, “Breath in it. Breath it deeply. … Remember that smell. Remember the Madagascar. Remember that God made men equal.”
Remembering is not limited to fond, feel good, celebratory moments but also to those that cause disbelief, grief, and even horror so that we have no appetite for the desires that lead us astray from God and to death…