(This also appeared in the Faith column of the Sentinel-News in Shelbyville, KY on August 21, 2015)
Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited (Romans 12:10-16, NIV).
Summer vacations have all been taken, lazy days out on the deck or at the pool are coming to an end, and the yellow school buses are rolling down the neighborhood streets as the kids go back to class. The sun is going down a few minutes earlier each day. Summer is coming to a close.
Maybe its because the shifting gears are so abrupt, but it seems to me that the invisible line marking the end of summer and the beginning of the fall season is more pronounced than the one marking the New Year. Fall has usually been the time that I renew my commitments to my goals: taking care of my health, getting my finances in better shape, working harder, being a better neighbor, getting more involved in my kids’ activities. And for a lot of people, going back to church is high on list of “New Fall’s Resolutions.” We in the church see an uptick of attendance each August and September, as our members get off their summer traveling schedules, and as new visitors decide that now is the time to try and make church a priority. I, of course, think that is a marvelous idea!
The People: People in a church are human beings just like everyone else. They are prone to making mistakes, offending others and causing harm. But when a faith community is healthy and centered on the gospel, a church congregation is unparalleled, despite these shortcomings. In my experience, I have never met more humble, gracious, hospitable, loving and generous people than in a healthy church. Even the people I don’t particularly get along with are still invaluable to me, and I am beloved to them. It is a special thing to have people you can call up at any time of day or night, who will laugh, cry, sit with or just listen to you. For a parent, having a safe place for my kids to grow, learn and make lifelong friends is paramount. And knowing that there will be people at all the significant events of my life, either to celebrate or help carry a burden is a comforting when I feel alone.
A Place for Healing and Hope: I know there are many resources out there to help us when we are despairing or in pain, which can be very useful. But in my experience, a community of faith that holds faith, hope and love as its core beliefs is indispensible. We in the church share a common language that helps us make sense of an otherwise incoherent world of trouble and catastrophe, which also helps us articulate the movement of God’s love and grace in this world to save and protect us. In other words, the story of how God rescues us from one mess after another with power and grace, as told in the Bible, enacted in our worship, and embodied in our life together, claims and defines us. It gives us hope that no matter how bad things get, God’s arm is never to short to save. Otherwise, we are left to be claimed by the competing narrative of a ruthless and inhumane world.
A Place to Grow and Serve: Faith is not a theory; we have to live it. What we believe is important, but how we incorporate our faith in our actions is what makes it meaningful and pleasing to God. I have no qualms with “spiritual, but not religious” people. But I implore such people to consider that there is no better way to make that spirituality real than in a community of people to love, learn with and serve beside. Healthy, humble church congregations serve the community, and serving others will make your soul grow. Also, what better way to deepen your spirituality than to nurture it with study, prayer and conversation? And if the God of unending, steadfast love wants us to reflect it into the dark world around us, then certainly we stand to increase the power of that love in a spiritual community.
Finally, we are lucky in Shelby County when it comes to finding ways to develop, deepen and express our faith. There are a number of wonderful church communities in this county, and there is a vibrant spirit of cooperation among many of them. I pray that you might consider worshiping in one some Sunday to feel the Spirit yourself.