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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storing up treasures: saying goodbye to a place I love

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I had to say goodbye this week, and it was so much harder than I expected. Because when you really, truly leave a place, you’re not just saying goodbye to people and things (if that weren’t enough), but you’re saying goodbye to an era, to the way those people and things made you feel, to life as you knew it.

I can’t exactly explain what my five years in Bangkok have meant to me. People try to tell me it was a “great experience,” and they call it a “wonderful opportunity” I was blessed to have. But to me, it was so much more than that. To me, Thailand wasn’t just a great experience, Thailand was real life. And to me, Thailand wasn’t just a foreign mission field, Thailand was home. My friends in Bangkok were not simply fellow comrades on some adventure, or a new connection to another culture, they were the ones who lived everyday life with me, who prayed forward victories beside me, who held me when I wept, who knew me through the good and bad, and loved me still.

Ironically, I can’t say that most of my time in Bangkok was easy or even necessarily happy. Often, I felt disconnected and discouraged. Often, I wondered where I even fit in that big city, and if pouring out my heart was worth it there. But, I think, actually, it was through those things that God showed me the sweetness and the depth of persevering love, and through the trials, He opened my heart to receive love from others when I needed it most.

Now, looking back, I’m so thankful for every season of my Bangkok years, and the sadness I feel today is really rather sweet, and rich, and meaningful. God really does use every little thing to shape us, and change us, and to work in our lives and relationships.

I’ve been reading Matthew 6 a lot lately, the part when Jesus tells us to store up treasures in heaven — the kind that can’t be stolen or destroyed. And I really believe that maybe relationships are some of the precious treasures Jesus speaks of. Invest in others. Love people. It’s always worth it. These are eternal, and in Jesus, relationships are forever.

My dear friend, Gloria, told me this week that God can expand our hearts to fit all the new things and people He places in our lives, in all the places He takes us. It made me feel so happy inside to remember that when we’re talking about love, there is always room for more.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” [Mt. 6:19-21]