I lost a much wanted pregnancy when our eldest was two. It devastated me. Looking back, I think that was the first of many obvious Spirit moments for me. Firstly, I think that’s when I first started to struggle with depression. And secondly, it was the first time that I became distinctly aware that there was an unseen mysterious spiritual universe around me. When it became clear that we were losing the baby, my husband and I prayed on our knees for God to change his mind. He didn’t. I decided that I would secretly name the baby Michael. I had a vivid dream before the loss that he was a boy. Michael was his name in my heart. I never told anyone. His name was my secret.
Two weeks later our precocious first born was having a tea party rather than taking her daily nap in her bedroom. Before I could step into her room to reprimand her and cuddle her back into bed, I overheard her talking to someone; the typical play of a two year old who knows way too many words for her size. So I popped in and said, “Lily, who are you talking to instead of napping?” She responded without a beat, “Michael and I are playing, mama.” I left her to play without being able to respond. I cried in my room through nap time.
I want you to know that this season of church wandering was quite lonely at times. Most of this loneliness was self-inflicted. There were moments of emptiness especially on Sundays that are difficult to describe. Growing up in the ministry and then marrying it, I have always had some kind of purpose on Sundays. I never even knew that this self-assigned purpose was there until it was gone. I’ve always logically known my relationship with Jesus was more than a Sunday morning experience, but this year that relationship was put to the test. Ministering families are always on the clock on Sundays, you see. And I’ve been living a facade of being “ok” at worship on Sundays for a very long time. The energy it takes to be fake for the sake of everyone else’s Sunday experience takes its toll. An introvert struggling with depression attempting to pull this off regularly is exhausting. Being reminded weekly that you are a removable and exchangeable part in the frankinbody of Christ is straight up spiritually destructive. I don’t think I’m the only one playing this “I’m ok on Sundays” game. If you are faking it and expecting to make it, cut it out. Be real for the sake of you and the church.
For the first time in my adult life, I’ve been free to desperately and independently seek God outside my assigned church station. I thought I’d find more of Him somewhere on this Sunday visit journey. Maybe I saw glimpses. I heard the moving songs. I listened to the motivational sermons. I saw the plethora of children’s/youth/Christmas program advertisements and the fantastic artwork that some tribes showcase. I witnessed all kinds of Christians worshiping in their various ways. But what I saw and heard and learned was all too familiar. After three months, it all felt stale and rote regardless of the sign outside, regardless of what I witnessed. What I wanted was a burning bush.
I wonder if a lot of us are looking for that when we go into buildings on Sundays. We get little glimpses and then forget on Monday. And after a year of visits, Sundays all just feel manufactured. These manufactured moments are intended to bring people closer to Jesus, and I think this works sometimes. But for the most part, it’s just that it IS often manufactured for the sake of a visitor. It feels like a huge marketing strategy to convert people to Sundays and not the Savior. We are selling church experiences instead of sharing Christ. We are speaking a language on Sunday that visitors don’t speak, or at least, I stopped understanding. And it was the same whether the service was traditional or progressive. After a while for the most part, it all appeared like an attempt to convince me to put money in their particular tray. So, I started paying attention to Monday through Saturday.
Before you say it, I agree. The heart of the worshiper is what makes space for worship. But what I was looking for was something more than my personal fulfillment, I was looking for meaning. I wonder if that is what most visitors are seeking. I propose it is. We assume they care about our worship styles. They come in looking for purpose, for faith in action, for a point to this difficult life, and often what they see is people singing songs then leaving to go get lunch. You can’t worship what you don’t understand. Sundays may not be the best way to spread the word that God is truly with us. You must see God in action to understand.
Most sermons I heard in my youth were devoid of conversations about the Spirit of God. I remember that it was considered progressive to have a bible class on the topic of the mysterious Holy Spirit. We certainly didn’t want to appear like the Holy Rollers down the street. But there were some of us, a curious few, who knew there was more conversation to have. In our first ministry, a sweet older lady held her bible tightly when she sternly looked at me and said “the Holy Spirit only lives in these words I hold in my hand”. I love that lady, but she was wrong.
I work in an elementary school. At the end of my work day, I sit and answer phones for the front desk. The after school daycare clerk sits alongside me and checks out students. Last year I got to know the clerk. Her name was Mary. She was 82 years old. She was a recently widowed pastor’s wife. She told me intriguing stories about their ministry in Arizona with the Southern Baptist churches. I listened. I never shared anything about myself. The day I came in after leaving our ministry thereby walking away from our primary source of income, I wrote Mary a note asking for prayers because I couldn’t speak about it without getting emotional for months. We sat in silence for the rest of the day after she read my note.
The next day when the office had cleared, Mary handed me an envelope. In it was $300 and a note that read, “I understand”. She then told me story after story about how she and her husband had been dismissed from three different ministries. She did indeed understand. How strange. Here at this moment in time in my life at this random school, the two of us sat wearing similar battle scars. I tried to refuse money, but she called it her “tithe” and backed away from me shaking her head. Her tithe wasn’t to a church building; her tithe was to help my family.
I never shared much with Mary about my personal life outside the note I wrote. I’m not a sharer by nature, and especially during this season, I was not talking to anyone or just handing out trust again willy nilly. Out of the silence one afternoon, Mary said, “But have you sang in praise to Him? Have you sang? You need to.” It was like she was finishing my thought. Mary didn’t know how much music was a part of my life. I studied classical voice for more than ten years. I started college as a music major and survived in college thanks to a generous music scholarship. Music speaks to my heart in a way that is personal and emotional. I had not lifted my voice in song for a very long time especially not in praise. There was no way for Mary to know this about me. But God knows, and clearly, Mary was pretty tight with the Spirit of God.
Another morning as I drove into work and was having my usual argument with God about how we couldn’t pay our bills, I glanced over into the median and spotted these tiny white flowers. Immediately, I remembered Matthew 6:28-30.
“Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these. “But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which are alive today and tomorrow thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you? You of little faith!”
I confess I literally rolled my eyes at the thought in my own mind. Yep, I scoffed at the Maker of the Universe and his gentle promise of provision. Ten minutes later I was greeting students as they walked into the school and one little boy who I had never seen before, never spoken to, walked up to me with the exact same kind of flowers and said, “You need these today”. He bounded off never to talk to me again.
I have a friend who never stopped harassing me during my silent season. She would leave voicemails that spoke right to the heart of what I needed regularly. I have other friends who supported us financially. I have friends who checked in and left cards and notes and forced uncomfortable hugs. All people from all kinds of churches, some without brick and mortar churches, all listening to the Spirit of God and acting on it.
And this is what got me through this year: The Spirit of God loudly getting my attention and working through the lives of others. None of which had anything to do with Sunday morning. I learned that God is alive in our daily experiences and expressions. He is alive in others and works through us through the week to direct our paths. Sunday exists to share communion with our church family and remember our Lord together. Monday through Saturday exist to share communion with our church family and act on the Spirit of God’s directives whether they make sense to us at the time or not. I would not have heard God so loudly had that sweet little boy not handed me those flowers. How many times has God had a message for me that I’ve overlooked because I simply was not listening?
We carry the Holy Spirit of God with us every day. We are the conduits of this Spirit for each other, for the greater community around us, and we have a direct line of communication with the Father. We are responsible to live out these Spirit directives every single day. We must become more sensitive to the voice and the Spirit of God guiding us. If we truly believe that the Spirit of God rests within us, then each of us are burning bushes for each other and have our own pillars of fire guiding us. Do we believe that? Do we act on it every day or are we only expecting to see the Spirit move on Sundays when we get goosebumps during our favorite Christian anthem? There’s more.
The failure of Westernized Christianity is the creation of this one-stop-shop Sunday routine where we listen to our preferred songs, our prefered preachers speaking our preferred doctrines, do our attendance duties, pop a dollar in the plate, and then lock the Spirit of God up in a convenient Sunday box. In this habit we miss the greater more intimate messages on Monday that speak directly to our hearts. This is not the design intended for the people of God. Church, you must be more because there is more.
I don’t know what Lily saw that day in her bedroom so long ago. I don’t know if it was the spirit of my lost child or something else or just a two year old playing and a coincidence. But I know without a doubt that the Spirit of God is here to guide us and to help us and that we fight unseen battles for our hearts every day. I pray we all are open to that guidance and that we are listening.