I was raised in the church, in a good church, but there came a time when I struck out on my own. Strayed from the flock. Went my own way. Wandered down the path of destruction.
Well, maybe it wasn't that bad.
I got married in the church I grew up in, and Lee and I played church every now and then. We were definitely Christians, and that felt good enough. I all the time said, "If going to a garage made me a mechanic, then going to church would make me a Christian." I had read that somewhere, and sounded like I believed it when I said it. I didn't really believe it, though. I remembered my church, mission trips, and amazing friends and their families, and I knew that I was missing out. It just sounded so good, you know?
Then we had our first child.
Then we moved away from our families, to another state.
We were on our own, with two little daughters. I remember as we turned onto the main road in our new neighborhood, my mom saying, "You should try that church," as we passed by.
A couple weeks later we decided to try it. I went alone, though, because we didn't want to feel pressured to come back. We had seen others families swooped in on by parishioners, hugging them and being all nice.
We certainly didn't want any of that business.
I mean, we were FINE.
You know, the 'fine' you say through gritted teeth.
I sat in a back pew, in the aisle seat so I could make a quick escape if necessary. A man sat next to me and started talking to me like he knew me. I turned my head to look at him, and he was so shocked, "I am so sorry. I thought you were my wife. You're sitting in her spot." We laughed so hard about that. I moved up one pew, still sticking to the aisle.
The church was nice. The liturgy was familiar. The pastor was kind and accessible, it seemed. Then he said we should each hug someone near us.
Aw, man. There it was. The hugging.
I made it through and told Lee I enjoyed the church service. We went as a family a week or two later, endured the swooping and more hugging. Soon we had friends that we looked forward to seeing each week, and a couple that we saw outside of church, too. We started going to Sunday school, and women's circle meetings (well, just me, Lee wasn't allowed), Wednesday night suppers. Somehow I joined the choir, and then we were teaching Sunday school.
We were in love with our church, and our church was in love with Jesus, and that love for Jesus just kept trickling down to us til we caught on.
I remember teaching a children's Sunday school class and not being able to wait until it was over to talk to Lee because dots had been connected and it was AMAZING!
"Jesus was celebrating Passover with the disciples. The Passover is a celebration of the angel of death passing over the Israelites and setting them free from captivity!" I excitedly told Lee once we were at home, "The blood of the lamb protected them, and Jesus is the lamb whose blood sets us free!"
Oh, that I could bottle up the joy of that time, of discovering God's way, his Truth, and the life in him. It was a miraculous time.
It was a tumultuous time for us as well, though. We were struggling financially, and by struggling I mean barely eeking by. We had credit card debt that I thought would kill us. We had phone calls from debt collectors that either ended with me screaming or crying, or both. I felt so called to be a stay at home mom we were determined to make it work, but it was hard because Lee wasn't feeling fulfilled in his job. (Actually, he kept telling me that he thought was calling him into ministry, but I told him God clearly had the wrong number.) Plus, we had done the numbers; any job I got would barely cover child care.
That's where I discovered the importance of church becoming family. There were women I could confide my fears in, and these women would assure me they had been where I was and made it. They encouraged me to stay the course. They simply encouraged me. These women taught me to delve into my bible for answers, for consolation, for courage. There were women who I could talk to for hours on end (who remembers sitting in their car with me after a Ruth circle meeting and suddenly realizing it was two in the morning?), and there were couples who took us under their wings, feeding us physically and spiritually. Age didn't matter, I learned to be friends with women three times my age just as easily women the same age as I.
Having a church family who leaned on us provided comfort as well. We were able to grow a lot in learning to listen, and to pray for friends at church. We were humbled by others who had faith in our ability to pray for them, who shared stories of heartache unimaginable. We were encouraged by the fact that these people got up and kept going. Knowing that we all struggle with something helped us to feel less alone in our struggle, helped us to keep on chugging.
We made friends for life, there at that church. We played cards and board games and had Christmas feasts together. All those memories sparkle for me.
I know it sounds too good to be true, but this is how God's family works, my friends.
I especially remember a Christmas in our home church when I was pregnant with our third child, who would be born January 6. Sitting in the sanctuary, hearing my church family singing all around me, watching my sweet daughters prance around in their Christmas clothes, I felt like I had a glimpse of heaven. A friend gave me a gift after Christmas Eve service, a baking stone - she remembered me saying a couple of weeks earlier that I had always wanted one. It felt so extravagant, so special, and I remember that feeling still every time I use it all these years later.
Then it was over. God had another plan for us besides the one I had charted out. We moved again, to another state, and my husband had another ministry position in another church. I thought my heart would break for missing our church family, our family who had surely helped birth us into a new life, raising us up from infancy to maturity in our Christian faith.
My heart didn't break though, and slowly over time, I came to have friends at our new church.
One day I realized that I had not lost our church family. (I promise I am not saying this because I've been overdosing on Hallmark channel Christmas movies.) Our church family was with me in my courage to keep my heart open to new friends, when I unpacked Christmas decorations and got out a handcrafted wooden nativity, when I held a hand carved wooden cross, when I singing a hymn that I had learned to love. I believe that God puts people in our lives, for a time, for a reason. I am so grateful for our home church, for the gift of love that they gave our family, and for every memory we have: talent shows, Wednesday night suppers (F.C. made THE best chicken fried steak, hands down), choir rehearsals, prayer concerns where the children took over,VBS decorating, and so many more that would fill a book.
I don't feel corny talking about my church family anymore. I just thank God that I have one.