the worst place to feel alone

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I visited a church today in my new town.  They say their vision is to connect people with God, and to reach out to the community, so I was excited to try it out.  I got there a little early, and honestly, I didn’t know where to go until the doors opened.  So I sat by myself on a bench beside the sanctuary and waited.

While I waited, people passed.  So many people passed.  Pastors, worship team members, regular attenders, and yes, greeters and welcomers.  I tried to look up and make eye contact so that I could make some connections with people.  But no one said anything to me.  No one stopped.  No one even smiled in my direction.  I know this is not absurd or abnormal.  But, you know what?  It kind of hurt.

I felt sad inside.  I felt awkward.  Part of me wanted to walk right back to my car.  Part of me didn’t even want to give that church a chance.  And all of me was missing the places I’ve left, who know my name and who are happy to see me and who welcome me with open arms.

And hey, for me, I’ll get over it.  I know that people get nervous to say hi to someone new.  I know that not all churches are good at that stuff.  I know that sometimes you have to push your way into a new community.  I know that Jesus is bigger than all of that.

But, for some people, it matters more.  Some people come to church, and they’re desperate and hurting and broken.  Some people come to church and they don’t know much about God or worship or how to “do” church.  Some people come, and they’re scared and they’re prepared to be rejected.  And some people, like me, come and they already know Jesus, but could really use a friend.

Jesus said that the world will know we belong to Him by our love for one another (Jn. 13:35).  I was talking with a friend just last week about how hard it is sometimes to feel loved in a community of Christians.  In my life, the two places I’ve felt most left out were both Christian communities.  And usually, it was during the hardest times in life that I felt the least welcomed and cared for.

“It’s never intentional,” my friend said.

And that’s exactly it.

So many communities aren’t intentional.  Not intentionally welcoming, not intentionally helpful, not intentionally going out of their own comfort zones to show Jesus’ love to others.  It’s not just a problem for churches, it’s everywhere.  Small groups and Bible studies, Christian organizations and institutions, circles of friends, everywhere.

And actually, I think I know why it’s like that.  Because LOVE changes things.  Love is powerful.  If you’ve ever been in a community where Jesus’ love is real among you, you know what I mean.  So no wonder.  No wonder that’s the thing that is so often stolen by fear or insecurity or pride.  No wonder that’s often the thing that falls to the wayside. Oh Lord, help us to combat the opposition and learn to love anyway.  Let’s be more about seeing God’s Kingdom grow than protecting our own little social group.  Let’s give people a chance – whether we’ve left others out or we’ve been left out.  Let’s believe better things for the Church, and be part of the change.

That was my favorite thing about my church in Bangkok.  We were all about loving people toward God.  We were a strange mix of every nationality and personality and style, and we definitely didn’t love everyone perfectly, but we sure did our best.

I’ll probably go back next week and give that church another try. They seem to be about Jesus in what they do, and I’m sure there are some wonderful people there. (And this town definitely has its share of welcoming churches too, please know.)

But next time we go to church, or are in any Christian community, or any place of belonging for that matter, and we see someone sitting there alone, maybe we should just go and talk to them.  Who knows how God might use that.

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Why we should stop chasing our dreams: battling the idol of significance

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Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere;I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked. Ps. 84:10

I am a product of my generation. And we are a generation of dreamers. Everybody (okay, not everybody but you know what I mean) wants to travel the world, or work for an NGO, or start their own business, or pursue more than one career. Everybody wants to make their own mark on the world somehow. And it’s good, so good. I love dreaming. To me, to live is to dream. And I think God loves it when we dream too. It gives Him space to move.

A couple years ago, when I sensed God calling me to stay in Thailand “indefinitely,” I had great hopes and expectations for what that might look like. I had dreamt of impacting culture, or of being part of some world-changing ministry, or of filling a need that no one else could fill. I wanted my time here to count for something significant. So I jumped in — passionate, excited, determined. I spent hours upon hours studying Thai. I rearranged my life to build relationships within the culture. I made space in my schedule to invest in my church and community. I prayed for the lost and hurting like I had never prayed before. And I loved it, and it was good, and God was in it.

But somewhere along the line, something happened. Somewhere along the line, I began to realize that nothing I had hoped for was coming true, that actually — in many respects — I was failing at all that God had set on my heart. I still couldn’t hold a decent conversation with my Thai neighbors. The Bible study I prayed would reach out to the unreached in Bangkok eventually dwindled into a group of teachers from my school. All the things I was doing and roles I was filling were simple, unexciting, and terribly dispensible.

And this is where the truth came out, because as I saw my dreams fall apart before me, I became discouraged and began to wonder if it was even worth it to stay in this city. Yet, this is exactly where God wanted me to be, and it’s the setting He chose to call me deeper in.

I decided to stay in Thailand because God told me to, but — though I hate to admit it — I guess that part of me also wanted a bigger storyline, a better resume, a more exciting testimony. And none of these things are in of themselves bad. My dreams for Thailand and my longing for significance are God-given, and my efforts that have spilled from them are pleasing to Him. May we never stop dreaming, and praying big prayers, and taking leaps of faith. But when all is said and done, it’s not about me or you or our dreams, it’s about Jesus. It is Jesus who defines greatness (in a very backwards way from the world we know). It is Jesus who makes life worth living. He is our joy, He is our prize, He is our delight. Man, I want to be like the psalmist who cried out, “Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked” (Ps. 84:10), or like Paul who proclaimed that his life was “hidden with Christ in God,” and set his heart “on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col.3:1-5). I want to take joy in filling cups with iced tea every Sunday at church, or in praying every night for a little girl I know who has nightmares, or in baking cookies for my neighbors, knowing that God uses every step of obedience to accomplish His purposes. I want to do these things not to fulfill a dream, but because of Jesus, because Christ’s love compels me (2 Cor.5:14).

So…the point is this: If you really want to make something of your life, don’t follow your dreams. Instead, follow the One who writes your dreams and plants them in your heart.

I know that my story in Thailand remains unfinished, and I don’t know what God has for me in the months and years ahead. But I pray that I find joy in chasing after Him, and letting my dreams unfold however He sees fit.

Do I really believe this? Sharing the Gospel in Cambodia

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In April, we took our first ever mission trip as Life Center Bangkok: three short days in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Our goal was simple: share about God’s love with anybody and everybody who’d listen. By day, we met people and tried to build relationships; by night, we held meetings at a nearby hotel and shared life stories, and God’s story too. We didn’t have elaborate strategies for getting people through the door; we didn’t even pass anything out to those we met. But in faith, we prayed and believed God’s heart for these people.

And somewhere in the middle of it all, I did start to wonder. I wondered what other Christians I know would think about our methods. I wondered if everyone back home in America would even approve. Would they think we’re crazy, boldly coming up to strangers in a foreign land and asking if we could share about Jesus? Or impolite? Or over the top?

The thing is, it is a little crazy, right? We are a little radical. And if I had doubts — any at all — that this Gospel is true, and powerful, and life-changing, then maybe doing all of that is pretty stupid. But how can I deny what I know? How can I deny what I’ve seen and experienced? How can I deny this God who has revealed His love to my heart, who has healed brokenness before my eyes, who has changed my life and others’ too? And if this God is real, if Jesus truly is the Hope of all hearts, and cities, and nations…then how can I not share with everyone and anyone? How can I not proclaim the truth I know, that others might find salvation and freedom and life in Jesus?

So maybe many in the church do have doubts, and maybe if you have doubts, you shouldn’t find yourself standing on the streets of another country, proclaiming a Gospel you’re not sold on. But I pray that God will reveal Himself so powerfully to His church, that every Christian would know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is all that He says He is…that “radical” wouldn’t be radical anymore, and that whether it’s in America, or Africa, or Cambodia, all believers would find themselves doing crazy things sometimes.

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By the way, we had the joy of seeing God do some amazing things in Cambodia. On our short trip, we made contact with over 40 people who are interested in building a church in Siem Reap. Many at the evening meetings made decisions to follow Jesus, and eight were even baptized. Our God is unbelievable! Teams from my church will continue to go to Siem Reap as God carries on the work He started!

Last of all, thought I’d share this slideshow. I made it to share about Thailand with my mom’s church (which didn’t work out), so at least I can share it with all of you. Maybe it will give you some ideas for how to pray. I stole a lot of the pictures from Facebook, so thanks FB friends! 🙂

Greater Things: Thailand 2011-2012 from Holly Stangle on Vimeo.