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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Love first.

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For years now, I’ve been on the hunt, looking for people I can “really” trust with my heart…you know, the people who won’t let me down, the people who are worthy of loving me. And I know it’s surprising, but I still haven’t found them yet.

So I’ve waited. I’ve held back the vulnerable things –the ugly, the sad, the scary — and built up walls to protect myself. It all seemed kind of heroic, like I was sparing people from the “burden” of loving and caring for me in ways that really cost something. Oh, and did I mention godly? It seemed pretty spiritual too, because I was trusting Jesus and only Jesus and keeping my heart clear of any other entanglements.

But all the while, I’ve been longing to be known, truly known, and longing to be loved once the real me finally stepped out.

And in the space — that scary unknown — between the people I love and the real me hiding in the shadows, God spoke. Love first, He said. Love first.

Because, the truth is, we’re never gonna know for sure. We’re never gonna know if the people we love most will be able to give us what we need or want. We’re never gonna know if acceptance waits around the corner, or if rejection does. And every step closer — in any relationship — is always going to be a risk. No matter how much trust we’ve built with others, the bottom line is, we’re all broken and if we’re holding out for the “ones” who are “good enough” to love and be loved, not one of us is going to make the cut.

Love first. Invest before you know it’s worth it. Ask before you’re sure of the answer. Give before you know they’ll take it. Be yourself before you know they’ll accept you. To those hardened by grief, the embittered, the skeptical, this sounds like utter foolishness. But to the one who knows intimately the power of the Gospel, it’s simply the way of our God.

For while we were sinners, Christ died for us. And before He knew we’d follow, He called us each by name. And even though many reject it, He pours out His love, His life, His gifts…freely and abundantly. In fact, all of this, the Bible says, defines love.

God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent His One and Only Son into the world so that we might live through Him. Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Dear friends, if God loved us in this way, we also must love one another. No one has ever seen God. If we love one another, God remains in us and His love is perfected in us….We love because He first loved us.
-1 John 4:9-12, 19 (HCSB)

He loved first. And by the redemptive power now alive in us, He asks us to do the same.

Okay, I’ll stop hiding: lessons in humility

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Here’s the thing about sin: when we don’t see it, it’s easy to think that it’s not even there. That’s why living in the “comfort zone” is such a cushy place. Not only do we feel safe and comfortable, but we get to avoid all the sinful, selfish, ugly things that come out when we feel insecure or afraid.

In the “comfort zone,” we get to control oh so many things, but the best part of all is that we get to control what people think about us. I just love doing that. That’s one thing I miss about my life in America. I had so much more control, and not just because I had a car or knew the language, but because my life had more…personal space. I had my work life, my church life, my social life. Sometimes they mixed, sometimes they didn’t. They were neat and containable. In Bangkok, my neighbors are my co-workers, and my co-workers are sometimes fellow church members, and my fellow church members are my friends, and my friends are my support, and so everything is all connected and there’s just no getting away.

Then there’s the fact that I’ve moved…a lot. Sure, there are so many hard things about that, but the nice thing about moving is — if you time it just right — you can leave with a sparkling reputation and with all these friends who wish they had time to know you more. It can make a person feel pretty good. Before any real conflicts arise, before people bud into your “comfort zone,” you are outta there. Whew.

So I’ve had to deal with this. Many times in recent months, God has gently and clearly pointed out to me all these ways that I need to grow. And wow, it is so hard for my ego. I want to hide these weaknesses, or make excuses for them, or try to control them myself…but all of those roads are driven by pride and eventually lead to disappointment and failure.

And so I have to just accept the truth. I have to accept that while Jesus gives us victory over sin, each one of us will be fighting the battle until eternity — no exceptions. I have to accept that I can’t even change myself when I want to, but God — in His timing and way — will transform me more and more into His likeness as I seek Him. I have to accept that He loves me anyway…that it was never about me, that it was never something I deserved, that He loves me the same, even when the ugly things find their way out. And that kind of love, ironically, is what my heart was looking for all along.