Wineskins Archive

December 3, 2013

The Changing Face of Fellowship…For Me

Filed under: — @ 3:55 pm and

By Maureen Helms Blake

Sunday afternoon. Sitting in my living room. Numb. I’ve made it home from church, but barely. I love my church. I love serving there. But how can I go back?

This was my heartcry, two years ago. That day, despite profound and persistent prayer, I found myself on the brink of collapse. All my earthly life, faith has sustained me, even though deep waters have certainly tried to swamp my trust in God. Childhood poverty. My parents’ divorce. Abuse at the hands of my dad and grandfather. My own marital struggles. Challenges faced by my children. The sudden loss through death of several key figures in my life.

Through all these valleys of the shadow, I have been able to continue to grow in my private walk with God, buoyed by corporate worship with fellow believers.

But then two years ago came a loss that very nearly became the straw that broke this camel’s back. My husband and I had both been lifelong adherents of the same faith, always worshiping side-by-side, and usually both in some position of service within the local congregation wherever we lived. When my husband walked out on our marriage a handful of years prior (those few words encompass a breadth and depth of desolation for me that I won’t go into here), we were still members of the same congregation—a dozen adherents in a tiny building.

Week after week, I labored on, deep in prayer, to be able to attend our shared church and continue to serve. But there came a Sunday morning when I stood in church, literally only a few feet away from my former husband, each of us performing our duty. The words of the service we were each saying aloud shivered me with stunning dissonance.

At home that afternoon, prayer illuminated the underpinnings of that disturbance: the words spoken were Godly truths that had been sustaining me all my life, especially during the time my marriage was dissolving. Now they were on the lips of the man standing next to me—but were apparently not being lived out. The strain of that dichotomy suddenly became unbearable.

I called a trusted Christian mentor and poured out this fresh sorrow, telling her I had no idea how to stand up front next Sunday and worship. She gently asked, “Could you attend somewhere else for a while?”

As terrible an option as that seemed, I clung to it as a lifeline and let my church know that I needed to be away for a while.

Those first few weeks I floundered in a sea of lostness. I’d already been forced to let go of my “married for life.” Now, my church felt as though it was being taken away, too. Not my faith—never that, but oh, my church family. The first Sunday I got dressed and drove, in our small town, not to my church but to another denomination’s building, I was adrift.

The church I started attending on Sunday morning had hundreds in attendance, in a sprawling building. I could hide in that crowd, I thought, and belt out the songs—their words often mirroring my own sorrow and struggle—and wipe away tears without anyone noticing.

The doctrinal belief of this church differed from mine. As much as I worked to open my thought to the sermons, I’d often twitch with, “How can he say that?” Or, “Oh, that doesn’t sound right.” But their kindness, coupled with gratitude for having a place to worship and sing, counterbalanced the oddness of having God spoken about in ways that seemed foreign to me.

For reasons unknown to me, my former husband no longer attended our home church’s midweek service, which included a Bible lesson, hymns, and a time to share healings and experiences tied to our faith walk. Thankfully that left me free to attend and serve on Wednesdays, maintaining contact with my beloved congregation.

A few Sundays into my time at the new church, I sat down next to a woman I knew from the local university. In the course of our chat, she patted my knee with such love and asked if I’d like to come to a house church she and her extended family had, on Sunday evenings. I was all ready to say, “Thank you, but no,” because I didn’t want yet one more different church. All I wanted was to be able to return to my own. But God had different plans, so out of my lips slid, “Why yes, thank you.”

I had no idea what to expect, but soon found comfort with this newfound family. Week after week, we gathered for a simple meal and then a time of learning. Sometimes we’d listen to audio or video sermons and other messages. We’d study a book by a pastor or spiritual leader. And always, we’d end with prayer that wrapped us, individually and collectively, in God’s tender presence.

I learned that my house church family most definitely did have struggles with the particular faith walk they had all been raised in, and with some individual congregations of that denomination. In order to progress in their individual walks with God, they had faced a painful crossroads, needing to break away and worship in an atmosphere more conducive to spiritual exploration.

Months passed. Heartache eased. What began as a self-imposed exile from my home church—harsh and raw—could be seen in fresh light. This exile was not because of any deficiency in my denomination, or any lack of love from the rest of my home church family. It was purely a divine guidance to stay away as long as the situation was spiritually and emotionally unsafe for me because of one individual.

I was able to accept this separation because it brought about an almost physical release from a crushing weight of burden. Until I stopped attending my home church on Sunday mornings, I hadn’t realized that it had been taking days of prayer before Sunday to prepare to be there, and days after to recover.

Yes, I slowly came back to life, but the whole situation with my home church still felt like monumental loss, and an unfair one at that.

But then. Ah . . . all along, unbeknownst to me, God’s grace—His oh-so-freely-given gift of solace, of binding up the brokenhearted—was transforming me.

There came a day when this odd arrangement of multiple church attendance no longer felt like a consolation prize—like a spiritual life cobbled together from leftovers. I began to smile, more and more often, at the incredible richness God had showered—no, deluged!—me with.

Sunday mornings I can stand with hundreds from my community and sing out my heart to God. I hear sermons which touch me, move me, and cause me to clarify what I believe. I am also being exposed to what another faith walk believes, and learning to listen to the differences in doctrine, without judgment, deepening my tolerance.

Sunday evenings I join with others who aren’t afraid to question, who know firsthand the pain of leaving the familiar when they could no longer find a way within that particular denomination to be honest before their God.

And on Wednesdays, I am in my dear home church, still serving, still worshipping, and often sharing how my personal faith walk is being enriched—broadened and deepened—by my interaction with the other church experiences.

That changing face of fellowship? Two years ago I would have said it referred to the three vastly different congregations where I found solace and support. But now, that “changing face” is the one I see in my mirror each day.

It’s the face of a woman who, sometimes kicking and struggling, afraid to let go of the familiar, is somehow managing, more and more, to turn her face—her heart and soul—to the God of all creation. To the God who has blessed her at present with not one, not two, but three bodies of believers to travel with.

She no longer leans so heavily on any one church congregation to supply all her needs. When she wants infallible worship and fellowship, she turns, in private, to the only One who can supply it. Today, gratitude overflows her lips for the myriad ways God has fed her in the wilderness—in song and sermon, in faith and fellowship.

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