Growing up, my parents were baby Christians, who for the most part, managed to figure things out as the went along. Somewhere along the way, they acquired the theology that church was a good place to be. And so we were there all the time – Sundays and Tuesday nights, mid-week youth group, vacation Bible school, concerts, you name it. If the church was open, chances are strong that we were in the building.
I suppose that this could have backfired horribly, but what happened instead was that I developed a deep and abiding love of the church. I love church buildings, and pastors, and the range of personalities that faithfully sit next to each other week by week. I love the mission of the church – to make disciples and to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world. We don’t do either of these perfectly – far from it – but even being given the assignment is a privilege. And I have had the honor of being a part of some wonderful churches.
My home church was (and largely still is) a community church. I went to school with 90% of the people in my Sunday school class and I don’t think I could find a single street in my hometown that didn’t have a family who attended that church. The pastors faithfully preached the gospel of grace and the people there succeeded in loving me well, which included telling me when I was in the wrong or had taken on too much. Even now, though I know fewer faces and fewer songs, BPC provides an anchor for me when I am home, and I am grateful.
When I got to college, I struggled to settle into a church. My mom is on staff at my home church, and I had taken for granted that church would be a place of known familiarity. It wasn’t until my senior year, when a tiny little Anglican church plant moved into the town next door that I really settled into rhythms of church away from home. The service was held at night and was followed by a glorious potluck dinner. That whole year, I was invited into the lives of families and into the community of worship. I discovered that I loved the ancient words of liturgy and of the creeds; that there was an abiding beauty in reciting truths that were hundreds and thousands of years old and yet true today. It was okay to be a mess there. You could talk about addiction or miscarriage or doubt and still be welcomed around the table. Hardships were met with tangible support and covered in prayer, just the way the church should be. To be so immersed in a community like that right as I was entering adulthood was a powerful force that only elevated my already high views of what a church should be. It was a grace – unsought and yet freely given, and I am so thankful.
It was out of this context that I moved to Northern Virginia and entered into the fellows program. Part of the fellows package is a church – in my case, McLean Presbyterian Church. And from that church comes your host family, an assigned area of service (5th and 6th grade girls, for me) and theologically-aligned seminary classes. Before I go on to tell you about the blessing that MPC has been in my life, the kindness that they’ve shown me and the wisdom that I’ve heard there, I must begin with a confession. I was a hard sell. Fellows year was hard for me and I pinned a lot of that on my church. I took most people at face value and declared the church too southern, too conservative and too formal for me. To be honest, those things are still true. But instead of asking if grace pervaded their lives or how they dealt with brokenness or what relationships there looked like, I pretty much stopped at the surface. And that probably would have been the end of it.
I had developed these wonderful relationships with the pastors during my time as a fellow. I’d been to their homes, fought with them about theology, told them the things I was ashamed of and the joys of my life, and had been met with grace and compassion. They let me interrupt their days and truly cared for me with the love of Christ. Although all but one of these men has moved on to other ministry opportunities, their love and care for me while I have been far from home has been the single most unexpected blessing of my time here. I am grateful that I will have all of eternity to say thank you.
And then, I joined this intensive women’s Bible study/mentoring program (truth: because the cool kids were doing it) and spent two years in the care of women who were bright, absolutely hilarious, deeply wounded, and completely committed to the Lord. Their vulnerability and encouragement was a gift – probably more than they could know – and revealed to me a side of the church that I had been blind to previously.
And then, I got called back to help out with the 6th grade girls and somehow just never stopped helping. If you have never had the privilege of watching a group of girls navigate the perils of adolescence and emerge on the other side, let me tell you first, it is hard and if you are even remotely in touch with how they are doing, it will break your heart. But it will also make you laugh until you cry, challenge you about how you live out your own faith, and deeply encourage you with all that they have to offer. My girls are in college now, learning even more deeply who they are and who the Lord is calling them to be – and I am so thrilled to still be a part of that process, even if from a distance.
After that came two marvelous groups of roommates that not only made me laugh and let me cry, but stood by my side to worship along with me. And countless friends. And families who have invited me to be one of their own. And none of this even touches on how fortunate I am to hear the gospel preached each week; to sing old hymns and new songs, all that speak to the same ancient truths. I haven’t told you about the rocking chairs or the couches by the pastors’ offices or the secret ladder that takes you above the fellowship hall. You don’t know how to use the industrial dish washer or where the pool noodles are stored for noodle fight night or where to find the special key that turns on the lights in the library. But after all, the church is people, not a building. So perhaps I have told you all that you need to know.
I have been well loved, sometimes in encouragement, sometimes in compassion, and sometimes in rebuke. But even on the hard days, I am so, so grateful. Thank you for being home.