Note: This is a consolidated re-posting of a series I wrote three years ago about our return to God. Today marks 5 years since we first walked into the doors of our church, Harvest United Methodist in Lakewood Ranch, FL. It seemed fitting to share (again) today.
Two years ago today, my husband and I walked into a church for the first time for both of us (save for weddings, baptisms, and funerals) in over thirty years. It’s something that still amazes us now; that we did this, especially in light of the fact that, up to this point of time when we made the decision to go, we’d never talked about God, or Jesus, or religion for any length of time at all. Yes, we met via an online Christian dating company (eHarmony), and, yes, there were some spiritual questions that we answered as part of that process, but, it wasn’t something we spent time discussing during our first meeting, or subsequently. We figured we were pretty darn lucky that we’d been matched up and that was about it.
When we moved to Florida many years later, we were in the process of making some changes; many major, others slight. I am coming to understand, in hindsight, that it is the small changes that have the potential to add up to something big. What were some of the smaller changes? We’d decided to be open to meeting new people, especially our neighbors. Neither one of us are the most extroverted of souls, so, this really was a challenge, even if it seemed easy enough to do. This meant saying "Hi" to people, talking to people, not doing the avert eyes thing when someone came towards us out on the street, all of that. We also decided to get involved, somehow.
Not too long after we moved in, our neighbor across the street approached us when we were out walking our dog (and since we’d decided to try and talk to people, we didn’t attempt to avoid her) and, after a few minutes of chit chat, asked us in a very friendly way if we’d found a church yet (she knew that we’d moved from another state). I’m sure we gave her that sort of glassy eyed look of those who really don’t want to be standing on the street discussing something that we’d never even discussed amongst ourselves. Truthfully, I can’t remember what we told her other than it might have been something like “No, we haven’t”. End of statement. She went on to invite us to go to church with her and her husband one Sunday; something I’m sure, again, we politely made noises like “Maybe” and “Thanks” but with zero intention of ever doing so. All in all this was not a major encounter, and, she did not pester us about it, however, in hindsight, it was a small seed that had been planted; her invitation made us think about it. Church. Church. Maybe this would be one way to get involved in the community and, what? Garner clients for our new and fledgling business? Perhaps.
In any event, a few weeks later, a local toss away paper called The Observer (which is delivered to our driveway every Thursday whether we want it or not) ran an advertisement of sorts about a message series one of the local churches was doing. I remember thumbing through this publication one night and seeing the church's ad, “When Christians Get It Wrong”. I quickly went past it, continued to glance at the rest of the paper, then, turned back to it. I read the rest of the ad and realized that the series was centering on all the things that give Christians a bad reputation; you know liked being judgmental, unforgiving, pious, holier than thou, disapproving of divorce, abortion, homosexuals, other religions, you name it. In all honesty, probably the primary reasons why I’d stayed out of church for the past thirty years.
Prior, I’d voluntarily attended a Lutheran church and been baptized and confirmed in it when I was a teenager, and yet, I’d walked away for no real reason. Probably, it just didn’t stick because I was a young girl who had other things on my mind than being a good Christian young lady. Meaning no disrespect to my parents, I had very little support or encouragement from them to either remain involved with the church or to have a relationship with God. So, leaving didn’t seem like a big deal, and it wasn’t .
Unfortunately, there were plenty of people around me in the ensuing years who discouraged me from entering into a relationship with Him; either those who were influential in my life who refused to believe that He existed OR (and actually probably worse) those who did believe, but were so strident about it that it totally turned me off. Looking back, I see now that I wanted to believe, but I just couldn’t bring myself to be in a relationship with a God I thought was hateful, prejudiced, biased, didn’t forgive, and probably didn’t want a relationship with me, anyway, because I’d really screwed up a few things in my life.
Finally it simply became my habit not to think overly much about God; however, I never didn’t believe in Him, if that makes any sense.
When my stepmother passed away in March of 2011, I recall calling my older sister and talking to her about her death. I was, quite understandably, very upset and very emotional. I was crying and I remember my sister asked me, “Do you believe in Jesus”? I was gulping for air and I said I did; but, frankly, I was later mad at her for bringing Jesus up at a time like this. Why? Because I thought that she was doing so not because she really wanted me to know and love Jesus, but because she wanted to convert me. Later, she did a few more things that totally pissed me off so that I found myself thinking “Ha, some Christian she is!” The thing is; her questions? They were another seed.
So, back to the message series at the local church (which turned out to be Harvest United Methodist). I showed the paper with the advertisement from the church to my husband. I told him this church was literally five minutes away from us and what did he think? Didn’t it look interesting? He took it, read it, and without hesitation said, “Sure, we can go if you want”. I don’t remember what day that was; it may have been a Friday, because we began discussing if we should go that coming Sunday. We initially decided to go, but by Saturday night, I was already having second thoughts about the whole thing. I mean, SUNDAY? That’s tomorrow! I don’t know, maybe I don’t want to do this?
One of the great things about my husband is, he’s not a pusher. Ok, maybe he wasn’t sure, either; come to find out he had his own very personal reasons for avoiding church, but, when I got cold feet, he didn’t argue with me. So, we did not go that Sunday but I just couldn’t get that message series out of my head. I WANTED to know what they were going to say. I wanted to believe that there were people who believed in God who were not judgmental. And, there was also the whole “getting to know people” thing that we’d promised each other we’d do. And, in all honesty, I was beginning to wonder what exactly I was going to do with the second part of my life, now that I’d seemingly “done it all”. So, I next told him I thought we should go to their Thursday night service. An hour, was all. Maybe it wouldn’t be very crowded, either; we wouldn’t have to deal with a lot of people and if we didn’t go back, not that many folks would have seen us there. I’m serious; this is what was running through my mind when we decided to try to go that coming Thursday!
This time, we went. Thursday September 29th 2011. A bright, sunny afternoon and the parking lot at the church was relatively empty (whew, I thought). We walked up to the doors of the church and before we reached them, they were thrown open by a man and a woman with big smiles on their faces. “Welcome to Harvest!”, they said. We were both a bit taken aback by their cheerfulness but (when we reflected on it later), it was genuine. It was pretty quiet inside the gathering area of the church; only a handful of other people there. The lady, Nancy, asked us if this was our first time at Harvest because I’m sure all first time people have the same look in on their faces that we did; a mixture of uncertainty, shock, deer in the headlights, and resolve. Yes, yes, we said and we spent a few moments with them telling them about us and why we were there (the draw of the message series). They themselves were not attending that evening’s service but were helping out with one of the children’s ministries. They introduced us to the youth minister/music coordinator and off we went with him. From there, we happened to meet Steve, one of the Pastor, and chatted with him a bit before heading in for the service.
One of the things I remember the most about that evening, other than who we met, was my doggedness in refusing to take communion. I told my husband that I wasn’t ready to do that and I felt it would be fake to get up there and take communion when I’d not set foot in a church for 30 years. Not that I felt my husband was being fake by deciding to do so; it was a very personal feeling. That evening’s message centered on when Christians say the wrong thing. Oh, boy. Catherine, the other Pastor led the service and I remember being extremely nervous and uncomfortable, but at the same time, totally interested in what she had to say. Lastly, one of the songs sung that night was one I’ve come to love called “Cry Out to Jesus” by Third Day and the line that stuck with me all the entire night was “He’ll meet you wherever you are”.
After that first evening at Harvest, this is what I recorded in my journal:
“Went to church for the first time in ~ 30 years tonight. I saw an ad in a local paper for this church, Harvest Methodist. They’re doing a sermon series addressing many of the areas about church/religion/organized religion that I’ve had problems with. So, we decided to try it and it wasn’t awful. Frankly, I think it’s a good place to start to re-explore…what? My faith? Not sure I’ve ever had any. To find something? That is probably more like it. Certainly, it’ll be a way to get to know people, at the very least. All I know is this. I have to do something different. I can’t live my life looking forward only to vacations and getting pissed off when things don’t go right (or my way). I‘d like to be a nicer, kinder person, certainly, a better wife. Well, we’ll see. We went, and I think we’ll go back next Thursday”.
And we did go back the following Thursday (eventually switching to one of the Sunday services); and the rest, as they say, is history!
From weekly worship to gradually becoming involved in multiple Bible studies and other ministries, to volunteering to serve communion once a month to supporting other church activities, the two of us have most decidedly found a church home. Not that it’s all been easy because at times it’s been very painful facing ourselves, some of the things we’ve done (or not done), and forgiving other people who we thought we’d never be able to forgive.
It’s also been a challenge interacting with people from our lives who, if not thinking we’ve gone totally off the deep end, are, at the very least, indulging us with symbolic pats on our backs and a “There, there, there; if it makes you happy, I’m happy for you!” Still harder for me has been what to say to THEM. It’s true; those who are on fire for God, who’ve recently joined The God Squad; want to spread the word; want others to understand and feel the same way. However, over time, I am learning that this is not really my job or responsibility; I mean, I can share what I feel called to share, but in the end, it’s up to them what they chose to do with it. I’ll leave that up to God and these individuals to work it out (or not).
I’m in the middle of a study now where the author is discussing how there can really be no transformation (in a person’s life) without there first being a revelation. When I look back on all that’s occurred in the past two years, and, most importantly, meditate on who Amy was then versus now, I can see how all these little changes here and there have added up to a transformation.
A while ago, a dear friend of mine, whom I was associated with in the years I was married to my first husband and therefore I was then not in any way, shape or form associated with God, asked me the following:
Amy, how did you get to the point you are right now spiritually? I know I'm on my way, but you seemed to get it right away. Maybe I am just too negative of a person. Any suggestions?
Ok, the fact she was asking ME this question in and of itself is pretty rocking amazing! Here is what I said, and it’s what I’d say to anyone desiring a closer relationship with God:
Wow, what a question and a great one, too. I think the fact you are asking the question is a wonderful testament to your desire to grow in your faith. It's so interesting that you asked me this NOW, because I'm in the middle of a new study at church where we've been reflecting on exactly this; where we are today vs. "before". I think for most of us, as with most things, change/growth simply does not happen overnight. It begins with small adjustments and tweaks we make that at the time may not seem like much, but, when we look back, we can begin to see how they've built upon one another and grown to the point where we eventually are changed in significant ways. The author of the book explained it this way; "It's like watching a tendril of ivy as it starts out. If you stare at it, it doesn't do much, but if you go back every week or so to check its progress, you can see its growth. And, when you look at it a year or two or three later, it's totally taken over the wall". Speaking for me now, this was the right time for me to be planted. It's not that I never had the opportunity before to embrace God, I just chose not to. Two years ago was my time and I desired it. I think that's the most important thing. A person has to desire it. No amount of someone trying to coax you into it will help (I'm learning that, too!) YOU need to be ready. I am extremely blessed in that my husband was as eager as I to begin this journey. That's not to say someone cannot do this if their significant other (or family/friends) aren't coming along because I've met plenty of folks who attend church and yet their families do not. It's just easier, is all. Also, we found THE BEST church and church family. I can't stress how important this has been for us. THE BEST in every possible way. We walked in and have never left. For two people that hadn't been to church (save for life events) in 30 years, that's incredible in and of itself. If you haven't already, find a church where you feel at home. And GO. Yes, of course life happens and we can't always attend, but, try to go. Also, get involved in and with The Word. Go to Sunday School. Join a Bible study or join another team that speaks to your talents. Attend some of the special events your church might put on, like Advent or Good Friday services. Serve. Help out at events, offer to serve communion. Join a ministry team. All of this, little by little, bit by bit, opens your heart, mind and soul to receive God's Word and do His will. And PRAY PRAY PRAY PRAY PRAY. However and whenever you can. Everyone does this in their own way and there is no wrong way. Even if all you do at first is recite The Lord's Prayer or read Psalms or recite back scripture you may have memorized, it's all praying/talking to God. One of our Pastors has a fantastic model to follow for growing in faith which he encourages all of us to try. 40.20.10. Be in worship 40 weeks out of the year. Read the Bible 20 days of the month. Pray 10 minutes per day. It's easy to remember and very doable. And remember, Christ desires perseverance, not perfection. Some days will still be not very good days; sometimes your attitude may not be what you want it to be. That's ok. Keep trying! As our other Pastor says, "Just. Keep. Swimming!" The fact that you are asking ME this question is just another wonderful example of how God works.
And the revelation that had to occur before any of my transformation occur? It came in the form of a toss away newspaper that I didn’t even look at most of the time. God revealed Himself to me in a message series that spoke to MY heart; that addressed all of my excuses for not going to church; for not opening the door to a relationship with Him.
God met me where I was, and He led me home.