This story was told during Centenary UMC’s Summer Sunday School Session on Sunday, July 24, 2016. The prompt was: living out your faith in your context.
I hate when people ask me what I plan to do in ten years. It’s just crazy. I have no idea where I’m even going to be this time next year in my life. But, something I do know is that God calls me constantly. And with the help of my internship this summer, I’ve been able to articulate my call better than I ever have before.
It sure as heck isn’t over, but one day this spring, I had an email pop into my inbox that I had never heard of. It was from a Christian Women’s community, a newsletter called “Faith.full.” but Jen Hatmaker’s name was at the top of the page, so naturally I dove in.
Jen Hatmaker is one of my favorite Christian writers. She is based in Austin, TX. Married to a minister. Loves the south. Has been on HGTV. Loves to eat. And tells it like it is
So, again, when her name was in the subject line of this random email, I had to open it.
I started reading and the first part that hit me said: “People crave what they have always craved: to be known and loved, to belong somewhere. Community is such a basic human need. It helps us weather virtually every storm.”
And I couldn’t help but to think how perfectly that applies to my own story. If it weren’t for community, I know I wouldn’t be where I am today.
It all started when my parents divorced. I was in fifth grade, and I didn’t have a stable family environment. I remember my dad traveling a lot and my mom’s clinical depression not getting better.
Church was a place where my family (non-blood) came together, weekly, and really loved on each other. When I look back on my younger days at Trinity Memorial, I reflect warmly because each of those people had such a large part of raising me.
This church was a place that I craved to go to. My Granna was a member, but so was my best friend and her family, my youth Sunday School teacher, and my friends that I grew up with. The church wasn’t more than 60-80 people on a good Sunday, but they all felt like good Sundays as Hannah and I sat in the first pew and colored in our children’s bulletins.
As I grew older, I also grew more involved with the church. I considered it my family since my real family was split by divorce and even more strained by mental illness. I was an active participant of the youth group, and even as I entered high school, the church gave me opportunities to be one of the youngest voices in the midst of an older congregation.
I was at home. I even can see the Facebook statuses (thanks to the “Memories of Today” app on Facebook) where I was craving church, or at church, or leaving church…but I loved it. I started digging into the community that surrounded me, making friends with not only my peers, but also the older men and women involved in my home church.
My church pushed me to take on leadership roles. They encouraged me to get involved in worship: leading music, reading scripture, and preaching. It was this very congregation that sparked my love for the church, even during it’s hardest (sometimes most political) seasons.
As I gained experience with my church, I also began to get involved in my Methodist district and conference. I served on the Conference Council of Youth Ministry in a variety of roles: middle school retreat co-chair, youth service fund co-chair, and even president.
I sort of became a Methodist nerd. And I loved it. I loved attending annual conference every year as a voting delegate. I loved hearing about what other Methodist churches are doing in our world. I loved that each year I went to conference, I gained new friends (of all ages) and returning the following year was always a reunion.
Along with this, I became involved in my Piedmont Emmaus/Chrysalis community which also became a safe haven from my family as during these years I had an awful family dynamic. I threw myself into my community, serving behind the scenes at all of our events, attending every worship opportunity that was provided, and was intentionally forming relationships with other Christians my age.
However, then it came time for me to leave my hometown and go off to the college of my dreams. “Go to church the first Sunday,” they said, “you’ll never get out of the habit of going.”
Well, I did go to church that first Sunday with a campus ministry I thought I would love. I ended up not feeling included (they were welcoming but not inclusive, there is a difference) and, therefore, I did not return.
It wasn’t hard to cut church out of my life at that point. I had begun to burn myself out on all of the committees and not ever really feeling like I was a part of worship.
Not to mention that I was having family problems with my step-family. I hated them (and I’m sure the feeling was mutual) and once a preacher told me, “If you don’t love your least liked person, then you will never love Christ,” I was out. Church never had a meaning in my life anymore.
I had left my family, my friends, and my church community at home. I was moving on to bigger and better things. Which led to a life of partying, struggling to pass many classes, and making friends that didn’t really have my back.
It wasn’t until a year and a half later that I realized that these things didn’t actually make my life “bigger and better.” Fortunately, I had a friend, Whitney, from my Piedmont Chrysalis community ask me what was going on. She could tell that I had made a change in my heart and attitude, and I was focusing on things and pushing God outside of my mind.
It was then that I realized how crucial community is for all of us. If it wasn’t for the roots that I put down in my home church, conference, and Chrysalis community, I don’t know that I would’ve come back to the church.
But instead, I had many friends reach out to me with love, asking who I had become and where I had gone.
Once I started rekindling my relationship with Christ, I knew I had to find a different campus ministry. I prayed that God would lead me to a community that would teach me to grow and that would love me.
He never lets us down.
I was led to a community that instantly picked me up, brushed off some of the dirt in my emotional wounds, and set me up to start healing.
These wonderful ladies taught me how to love strangers and how to read and study the Bible.
It was then that I decided to start my own small group at school. One to meet every week, with girls I didn’t know at the beginning. I was able to put my need for community into an action that could benefit others as well. One that constantly uses Jen Hatmaker’s motto: “People crave what they have always craved: to be known and loved, to belong somewhere. Community is such a basic human need. It helps us weather virtually every storm.”
Our little group met January of 2015 and fortunately still meets weekly at my apartment. We love each other, cry on each other’s shoulders, celebrate each joy, and eat as many cookie sundaes as we can.
Something else Jen writes that is written on my soul:
If Jesus’ basic marching orders were 1.) to love God and 2.) to love people, then the fruit of that obedience includes being loved by God and loved by people.
We give and get here. According to Jesus, the love of God and people is the substance of life.
Isn’t it? Nothing can happen — no tragedy, no suffering — that cannot be survived through the love of God and people. This is holy territory: a loyal friend on the other end of the line, a companion on your doorstep holding King Ranch chicken casserole because sometimes that’s all there is to do. When you say to me, “I will see you through this,” I can endure. Between God’s strength and yours, I have enough.
We are not promised a pain-free life but are given the tools to survive: God and people.
It is enough.
The church certainly tries to foster community, bless it. We at least know how essential it is. So we organize Life Groups (see also: Restore Groups, Community Groups, Home Groups, Cell Groups, Youth Groups, Women’s Groups, or — kickin’ it like my Baptists — Sunday school). We try to provide structure for folks to belong, to be known. Sometimes it works like magic and sometimes it so doesn’t. You can lead a horse to water, but sometimes the horse is awkward and weird, you know? I’ve had small groups create friends for life and others that felt a teeny bit like sustained torture.
I guess I prefer something a bit more organic, less program-driven. Instead of waiting around for church to assemble a perfect group dynamic of People Who Can Meet on Tuesdays, maybe just invite some folks over. A shared table is the supreme expression of hospitality in every culture on earth. When your worn-out kitchen table hosts good people and good conversation, when it provides a safe place to break bread and share wine, your house becomes a sanctuary, holy as a cathedral. I’ve left a friend’s table as sanctified and renewed as any church service. If you have a porch, then you have an altar to gather around.
Loneliness can be a prison, but we have keys. You needn’t wait for someone to open the bars. If you can make a pot of chili and use a cell phone, then you can create community. If you want to wait until your house is perfect and you aren’t nervous, then just forget it. This is an imperfect apparatus, thank goodness. It requires people with true faces, courageously being seen. There is no alternative to genuine connection. Sorry. Community has to start somewhere, and that somewhere should be sincere. Otherwise you build a flimsy house of cards. Run the risk analysis and decide if safety is worth the loneliness prison. I suggest it is not.
We have the keys, you guys! They look like tables and couches, beef stew and crusty French bread. They include patio chairs and music, football on the TV and cold beer. They involve a simple e-mail invite for Friday night and burgers on the grill. They say, “Bring your kids and we’ll lock them all in the backyard with Popsicles.” The keys include good questions and good listening around a fire pit; they certainly contain stories and laughter. They don’t require fussing or fluffing, so don’t let anything stop you, because a messy kitchen only tells me someone cares enough to feed me, which is a good key.
Instead of waiting for community, provide it, and you’ll end up with it anyway.
The love of God and people is the whole substance of life. Nothing is more important. This is sacred work and very much counts.
I am extremely grateful for Jen Hatmaker’s words.
I am called to foster authentic community. It’s how I intentionally live out my faith each week in an atmosphere that focuses on parties, drugs, academic excellence, and sleeping as much as you can.
I personally prefer to help foster authentic women’s community. While right now, I am focusing that call on just college aged ladies, one day, I would like to expand into an intergenerational community.
“Doing life together” is more than it encompasses. It’s loving each other well, encouraging one another, and helping see each other’s gifts and passions.
I want to lean into God’s call for community to grow together and love each other well, so that we may be effective followers when it comes to loving others.