This past week I was reminded again of why I love the Bride fo Christ, warts and all.
It started as we kicked off the service with a new worship group leading us. That might not seem like a big deal but it was special because we had been praying for the Lord to raise up new folks to form new worship teams. Last year we had the unbelievable privilege of having 5 different worship leaders (all volunteer no less) who were gifted and willing to serve on a rotating basis. It led to a variety of people serving and various styles of worship, which was sweet and rich and an absolute blessing to the church. This summer though we said goodbye to 3 of the leaders and the worship responsibilities fell on our two stalwarts, Matt and Jesse. We let the church know we were praying for the Lord to raise up new leaders to share the load and then we waited. Gratefully, we didn’t have to wait that long for this new team to come together and take to the platform last week to serve the church family. As the new worship team played the first song, you could feel the church Sunday family pressing into the music and singing louder and more enthusiastically with each stanza. When Ryan, the other pastor on staff introduced the new worship team, there was spontaneous applause and cheers, I’m convinced out of a gratitude for God’s faithfulness to answer our requests in such a tangible and sweet way. It only got better as the service continued.
Next up was a time for baptisms, with 5 people, all women, being baptized. What an encouraging thing to see these sisters from 7 to 50+ making a public profession of faith by being baptized. Again, I couldn’t help but remember we have made a point of being more intentional to pray for the Lord to allow us to see more fruit, specifically to see more people come to faith through the witness of the church. Again, the Lord has been more than faithful and we are seeing more fruit.
By the time I walked up to the pulpit to start the sermon, I was already encouraged and fed by everything that had led up to that point. And so as I started to talk, it struck me for the first time in a long time that I was looking out at the church that had taught me over the past 30 years to actually believe what I was saying, that church is a place of blessing and grace and life. For those that didn’t know me then, I came to Gainesville to attend UF, like too many college students, jaded and disappointed with the church, with the masks that were worn, with the games that were played and more than anything, the seeming disconnect in the church from the real world outside the walls. After a couple of years of “plowing the ocean” as my dear friend says, I found myself alone, on academic probation at college and sitting in a dead end with no clear direction to go, except back to the one place I had been loved, however imperfectly, that is to the church. Through reconnecting with some dear Christian brothers, I was invited to Creekside. I walked in the door that Sunday doing my best “I wear my sunglasses at night” impression and to my surprise, I found a church that took the Word seriously, yet was living in the real world (the pastor’s references to Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan lyrics were my first clue. The Hill Street Blues illustration clinched it) and that believed we were all in the process of growing in Christ and so grace was needed by all. I knew that first Sunday I was home. I had found a place I could try to walk with Christ and still have room to breath. And so as I spoke this Sunday, almost 30 years later, I looked at the 3rd row from the back, (where at the right time of year the sunshine blinds you) and saw where that prodigal son had sat so many years before and I was filled with love and gratitude: to God for his unceasing grace and mercy in pursing me, and for his Church, particularly for his Body at Creekside that had reached out to love a college student with a bad hair cut. Little did I know I would find my wife there or that i would raise my children there or that I would one day be one of the pastors up front, opening up the Word and speaking of the grace and truth that is in Christ.
I’ve found that life in the church is not always neat and tidy. In fact it is quiet often messy, taxing and so terribly “unfinished”. But it is just as often sweet and rich and meaningful and verdant with life. I was reminded of all of that in a flash Sunday. Thank you Creekside for preaching with your lives a far better sermon that I could ever give.