I stood in the dark auditorium, tears racing down my face, falling faster than I could wipe away. I was grateful the lights were low and hoping this wouldn’t be one of those Sundays where we’re told to greet the people next to us or grab a neighbor’s hand as we prayed.
Thankfully, the lights stayed low, the music carried on, and I sobbed in solitude.
As the next song began I almost choked on the unexpected chuckle that slipped out. I rolled my eyes and thought, “Of course, God. I get it. Well played.” I’m banking on God not being offended by the rueful tone my prayers took, as they were full of bittersweet honesty and a twisting of my heart that resulted in the confusing mix of tears and laughter.
More than six years ago we’d visited friends who lived a few hours away and, before heading home, attended church with them. I can still see us, standing in their sanctuary, singing a song I’d never heard before. I teared up that Sunday, too. But on that morning my tears were only bitter and sad, no sweetness to be found. The lyrics seemed to mock me in a way I could hardly bear.
The song I heard that morning so long ago — and again just a few weeks ago — was, “God of This City,” by Chris Tomlin.
You’re God of this city, You’re the King of these people
You’re the Lord of this nation, You are
You’re the light in this darkness, You’re the hope to the hopeless
You’re the peace to the restless, You are
For there is no one like our God
There is no one like You God
Greater things have yet to come
And greater things are still to be done in this city
Greater things have yet to come
And greater things are still to be done here
At the time I first heard that song my heart was undergoing a massive awakening. Though it was already a few years behind us, our failed church plant still cast a dark shadow over our hearts and our church life. And as a new blogger, I was getting involved in the corner of the Internet that involved so many social justice initiatives, though still as just a spectator. My eyes were being opened, and my skin didn’t seem to fit anymore, and I didn’t know what to do about it. I didn’t know who I was becoming, but I didn’t like who or where I was.
All at once my understanding of the Church and the world and God and myself were morphing into something I wasn’t quite comfortable with yet. I knew our church home was no longer a place I belonged, but I didn’t know where I belonged instead, where I could possibly feel welcomed but also challenged.
As I stood with my friends in their church that day, hearing that song with those lyrics, the tears rushed down my face as I prayed, as I begged God to show me how to become the kind of person who sang a song like this and meant it, to find a church that would nurture these seeds of change instead of stifle them, to use my frustration and heartbreak to serve Him and whoever was waiting out there, in this city.
It all sounds so very angsty now, on the other side of a whole lot of healing and grace and some growing up, too. But the point is that the first time I heard that song, I was desperate to find a church that lived out those lyrics. Like a miracle, we eventually did. And you know what I learned?
I learned that churches living out their mission, churches going into their cities, churches sending their people out to serve, to live, to be part of their communities are just as inspiring and life-giving and exciting as I imagined. But they’re also terrifying and heart-breaking, too.
Because going into all the nations and making disciples in real life means a whole lot of goodbyes. When I sang this song a few weeks ago, it was the last Sunday for our worship director. And while he and his wife are friends, and I miss them, my reaction was the result of a lot of changes and goodbyes that have happened while we’ve been part of our church.
It turns out that sometimes God tells you to stay, but He calls your friends to leave. Sometimes your mission is right in front of your face, while the people you adore and enjoy and rely on have a purpose across town or state lines or oceans. Sometimes small groups disband and ministries come to an end and jobs change. When you’re focused on pursuing God’s purpose for your life above all, change is frequent and farewells are commonplace.
But knowing that — and acknowledging it is exactly what I wished for — doesn’t mean that goodbyes don’t hurt. Goodbyes do hurt, and change is hard — even when the leaving is all about following God in a way I wished I could see when I first sang that song at our friend’s church. I wished for a community of believers so passionate about serving Christ that they were determined to follow Him outside the church walls into the world — and that’s exactly what I found.
Bev @ Walking Well With God says
Yes, with God, be careful what you ask for…He listens. I remember calling out to God for purpose as I couldn’t walk for a month as I recuperated from surgery. I felt utterly useless and ineffective. Boy, did God answer. That’s when my blog was born and I fell in love with writing again which then led to starting a ministry for orphans in the Middle East which gave them scripture and the love of Jesus vs. bombs and hatred. Just goes to show you that God answers in ways that are immeasurably greater than all we can ask or imagine. Thank you for sharing how God showed up big time in answering your prayers and how growth and change can be bittersweet…especially if we’re listening to His call.
Michele Morin says
Perfect timing for me.
We’re in the process of looking for a new pastor, figuring out who we are as a church, and asking all the hard questions about mission and purpose and ministry.
Thanks for putting your words out there for me today.
Nancy Wolfe @ livingcenter.me says
I’ve never been very good at “holding loosely.” This is so good, Mary…xoxox
Beth Williams says
Be super careful what you ask God to give. I prayed for a while that I could become a local missionary. He answered that prayer quickly. He allowed me to quit my job-to care for my aging dad. In the almost one year since I have been a part of several “missionary” activities. They mostly involve baking cupcakes, giving clothes away, and cooking meals. He has also allowed me to get more involved in my local church. I am grateful for this time and want to use it for His purposes!
Anna Smit says
I’m so glad you posted something here, Mary, because I tried to message you via your blog, but it kept failing. I wanted to thank you for your encouraging interview for Hope Writers. There’s something so beautiful about your open and compassionate heart. I was also SO encouraged when you chose to visit my brand new blog in October last year, commenting on a post I had found so hard to share because of its vulnerability.
I’m so sorry for all the pain of these goodbyes. I have had many in my life too…lots in my childhood with missionary parents (14 houses, 7 cities, 2 countries before I turned 18)….and yes, it hurts, SO much. Keep bringing that hurt to God, both the painful goodbyes and all the other hards…I stopped when I was a teenager and missed twenty long years of God’s strong, comforting embrace. Hugs to you from afar and thank you again: you are such a treasure from God.