Saying goodbye to the church I’ve grown to love

Eight and a half years ago I moved to Louisville KY as a bright eyed college student ready to find the church of my own choosing. I hadn’t thought about the specifics, but I knew I wanted something fresh. I was leery of what I thought “traditional” meant: stale and cold and rote. To put it plainly and honestly, I set out to find a really “cool” church. But as God would have it, I walked in the doors of Third Avenue Baptist Church.

At the time the carpet was red and the baptistery had matching curtains. There were pews and suits and lots of ESV Bibles. There was standing up and sitting down. There were hymns. There was somberness. There were 4 singers lined up off to the side of the stage and hidden behind them was instruments and their players. Everyone, including those singers up front, were looking down at the words of their bulletins as they sang. The pastor wore a suit and a tie. Needless to say, it wasn’t exactly the rockin’ church I expected. I wasn’t blown away. I wasn’t immediately wowed. It wasn’t love at first sight. But for some reason, I kept going back. And at the time I couldn’t even tell you why; especially when my 3am Saturday night paper writing self kept nodding off during the longest sermons I had ever sat through in my life.

But now I see it more clearly. It wasn’t about stylistic preferences or aesthetics or the fuzzy feelings I left with. I think ever so slowly and subtly it was the people. They are what kept bringing me back. The people who saw the invisible line I was drawing between me and the exit door and who stood in the middle of it. The people who held out a hand and introduced themselves. The people who invited me to Sunday lunch down the road. The people whose lives were so clearly intertwined with one another already, yet still welcomed me, a mere stranger. They were like a family. But not the closed off kind. So as cliche as it sounds, their love won me over. And I wanted in on it. So I kept going back.

And now, hundreds of introductions and invites and (wakeful) sermons later, I am saying goodbye as my family and I move out of state. And in the bittersweet process of leaving I’m reflecting on what this place, no really these people, have forever impressed upon my understanding of what a healthy church is.

Intentionality doesn’t have to mean originality

While the family like feel of this church slowly started to warm my heart, the evident intentionality behind why they did what they did quickly eased my mind. It also corrected it. It exposed the equation my mind had made that repetition and liturgy meant disingenuous. I quickly saw that nothing at Third Avenue was done a certain way just because “it’s the way it’s always been.” Everything, from the singers on the side of the stage to the timing of each pause between transitions, was done with a purpose. Actions that were born out of purposes and purposes that were born out core values and commitments and covenants. Overall, it was all done in order to lift up feeble and weary and longing eyes to the reigning King of Kings.

The body is broken and beautiful

It didn’t take long for me to become proud to call this church my own. The intentionality, the solid teaching, the intellectual depth, the out-working of love for each other and for neighbors and for the nations. But it took many years for me to see that I was still referring to this church in terms of “they” and not so much in terms of “we.” I felt a little more like an admirer from afar and not a family member from within. But then. It was then that I decided to dig in deep. To be close enough to really find out and really be found out. To know and be known. Turns out, this really extraordinary place was made up of pretty ordinary people. Flawed and quirky and struggling and sinful human beings all fumbling to the cross, together. But it was more beautiful than I ever could have seen from staying on the outside. The exterior was polished and pretty but the interior was full of a kind of beauty and wonder that was other-worldly. It was rich and messy and hard, and so very glorious.

Worship isn’t only personal

Something seemingly very strange that stood out to me from the beginning was that if people were not looking down at their bulletins while singing, they were looking around at one another. I came to find out that these people weren’t looking around because they were distracted or because they were trying to find the person who they were saving a seat for or because they were just plain strange. They were looking around as if to say “come on church, sing it with me.” As if to declare that we are in the waiting and working and worshipping, together. As if to scan the room and catch a glorious glimpse and tiny taste of the kind of diversity that will all be gathered around the throne some day with unhindered voices. I’ve grown in understanding that while the Christian life is intimately personal it is also intensely corporate. Whether on a Sunday morning gathered or a weekday evening scattered, we sing songs loudly and we fight sin seriously and we pursue spiritual disciplines gladly, both with one another and for one another. Because one single ligament affects the whole body.

The Word speaks for itself

Matt Smethurst says “I don’t remember 99% of the meals I’ve eaten, but they’ve kept me alive. God uses faithful, forgettable sermons to beautify his bride.” While so many of pastor Greg’s abrupt motions and rich realities and simple sub points will not be easily forgotten, this statement by Matt expresses so well what I believe has happened inside of me as I’ve sat under the preached Word of God. What may have been momentarily forgettable in my mind has made an eternal impact in my soul. In my most unbiased opinion, Greg Gilbert is an exceptionally gifted preacher. But my time at Third hasn’t left me more reliant on him. It’s left me more reliant on Gods Word. Because that’s all he’s done time and time and time again: open up ancient and active Words and let them do their job. The job of convicting and comforting and saving and sustaining. I’ve witnessed how the gospel being preached from the pulpit brings a dead heart to life. My pastors haven’t done anything fancy but they’ve done something that is faithful. And by the grace of God, I have once again been a recipient of this powerful and precious thing called faithful preaching. And I will never be the same because of it.

Unity is a gift that is graciously given and fiercely fought for

I will not quickly forget the picture my pastor once laid out about the enemy planting grumbling and gossiping bombs all around us and among us. All it takes is a slanderous whisper, a biting comeback, an unchecked assumption, or an intentionally exclusive invite for little explosions to lie in wait. Slowly cracking and corroding and corrupting Jesus’ blood bought unity. So we pray for God to grant it and we work hard to protect it. I’ve witnessed firsthand how unity doesn’t mean we check all the same political or theological or life station boxes but it means that we all set aside our preferences and differences to bow down before the cross of Christ. And it is there, at the foot of the cross, that our unity is created and found and kept.

Serving is not for me

My once needed-and-noticed pastors daughter self sat in a Third Avenue members interview being asked if I, along with all other men and women in the church, would volunteer in the nursery and join a home group. Uhh. That’s it? That’s your serving opportunities? Yet it was through this process I learned the valuable distinction between being important and being indispensable. I learned that I could freely love those in my circle while also knowing that the whole of my church would carry on without a slight hinge when I left it. I became painfully aware that far too often I wanted to give with the subtle desire to gain. Be it public recognition or personal satisfaction. This drove me to see the beauty in serving quietly and averagely and ordinarily in a church that didn’t really “need” me. At least not in all the ways I wanted to be needed. Because the reality is that where there are people, there are needs. There are kids to be watched and meals to be delivered and houses to practice hospitality in and sufferers to sit with. It was so very good for me to learn how to serve in the shadows by simply showing up.

Love welcomes in and sends out

When I joined Third Avenue eight years ago I had no intention of sticking around for so long. Yet many years later when we settled in and started raising a family I had no idea we would leave so quickly. So much has happened in these eight years yet it feels like we’ve just barely gotten started. We never thought we’d stay, but once we stayed, we never really thought we’d leave. And now here we are. Along with so many others in this uniquely transient church. In a church where people are stayers longer than planned and goers more quickly than expected. Along with missionaries and pastors and planters being flung out all around the globe. Along with those moving back to be closer to family. Along with those joining up with other churches. It can be hard to love by letting people in. It can be even harder to love by letting them leave. This church, my church, has taught me how to embrace the coming and the going. How to latch on and how to let go.

And now, the hands that brought us in gently are the same hands that send us out gladly. So we go. With this piece of Third Avenue DNA that we will always carry with us. That we will always seek to insert and implant where we can.

Not because she is a flawless bride but because she clings to a faithful Christ.

Year 29: mottos and mantras

For my birthday this year I decided to jot down some mottos and mantras that I want to mark, at least in part, year 29. This is not intended to be a list of the deepest or truest things about me. Rather it is a small sampling of go-to phrases that I have or do seek to speak into existence in my own life. Some are old, some are new, some are borrowed… and none are really blue. But maybe they will resonate with you too. Or spur you on to come up with your own.

Thanks, friends, for another year of journeying with me and for counting the words I write as valuable of your time and brain space. There are so many voices.. thank you for listening to mine. It’s a humbling gift so many of you have chosen to give me through the years. And I don’t take it lightly.

YEAR 29 HERE WE GOOO.

I do not have to bow down to my feelings nor kick them to the side

It’s true that sometimes emotions need a reset. A walk, a talk, or simply a really good night of sleep. It’s a wonder how emotions can look so different on the other side of them. Often, momentary emotion does not have the best depth perception or offer the most accurate vantage point. But, on the flip side, I’ve realized the harmful mentality of I am/you are “just being emotional.” As if emotions are categorically irrational or misguided. Sure they can result in irrationality or misguidance, but they themselves, are not. Therefore they are not to be discarded as inferiority or weakness.

29 year old Natalie wants to do better about saying things to myself and to others like “yes I’m feeling really emotional about this, but it doesn’t mean what I’m saying isn’t accurate or valid or necessary.” Boiling blood can lead to battle. Sorrow can lead to empathy. Grief can lead to depth. Exuberant happiness can lead to lifting and lightening spirits.

My emotions aren’t “too much.” They are dreadful masters, but they are powerful guides. And they should know their place, and then take it.

I am a joyful wife and mom

I heard this mantra recently and it resonated with me immediately. Not because I always am, but because I want to be. Because I want to change some deeply rooted projections and perceptions of myself as a sort of “kill joy” mom or wife. And rewrite them. I all too often see myself as an uptight and impatient mom. Or a nagging and neglectful wife. I want to be a wife and a mom who spreads smiles. Who is playful. Who laughs without fear of the future. Who enjoys. Who embraces. Who is simply a pleasant presence. Who is grateful. Who is deeply rooted in peace which finds its expression in joy. I am these things, and want to become them more.

My 29 year old self will continue to speak into who I want to be “Nat, you are a joyful wife and mom.” To write it in my journal every morning. To pep talk it to myself in the mirror. To sticky note it above my sink. To ask the presence of Jesus and his unshakable joy to permeate all I am and all I do. Won’t He do it.

Good for her, not for me

I also heard this one a while ago and am claiming it as my own. This isn’t a snarky “good for her” or an ashamed “not for me.” It is a realization that some things work for others that don’t work the same for us. It is a reckoning with the reality that their good isn’t always the same as my good. It is being able to genuinely cheer others on while simultaneously having security in the way we ourselves choose to do something. It’s a claim that declares that self worth is not decreased or elevated by comparison to another person.

29 year old me is striving to look at another woman’s life, choices, successes and set up and humbly yet confidently say “good for her, not for me.”

Jesus cares about them, or that, more than I do

Although I would never flat out say that I’m “better” than God at anything, I sure can live like it and think like it. I can let myself believe that I am somehow filling in the gaps of His own lack. Maybe I proclaim that holistically he is “more than” me, but in the day to day I can live like justice will not prevail, mercy will not win, and compassion will not be extended, if I myself do not do it. But I’ve been humbly reminded again and again this past year that His heart is the pure original and mine is but a pale reflection. He is all good things in their fullest form. He made good things have their form and he himself is their form.

My 29 year old self will fight to remember that I am called to carry out the heart of God. To be hands and feet. But by no means do I myself make up the heart of God. His heart, in pale and part, is made up in me. And I will preach the gospel to myself that the very heart of God is what sent his innocent son and the savior king to be crucified on a cross as a criminal. I can never weep more longingly, exact justice more perfectly, be moved more sacrificially, or love more fully, than the one who died for me. And for the whole world.

No matter what happens today, a tall frosted glass of milk and a beautiful piece of chocolate will congratulate you on the other side of it

Milk and chocolate do not talk back. They change not. They fail not. They judge not. Most beautifully put, “chocolate is comfort without words.” And dang it sometimes we’re worded out. But never comforted-out.

So me as a 29 year old will wisely listen to the words of Tom and Donna on Parks and Rec to TREAT YO SELF. And for every single day that makes up another year of this life that I have been given- before my head hits the pillow to pray or to plan or to cry or to crash- I will indeed TREAT MYSELF. Because the days are too long, and our life is too short, not to. My heart needs unshakable truth and my soul needs unchanging chocolate.

Do we hold these truths to be self-evident?

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…”

 

These words were declared long ago, and they have been declared many times since.

As “declare” implies, these words have been uttered with much heart and passion and vigor and through the years. They have been proclaimed as undeniable truth written on the consciences of all. They are rooted in conviction, covered in morality, and said with great American pride. The words grip us as well as ground us. They feel powerful as well as pure.

Yet we simply cannot go on ignoring the irony. During this time, while human rights were being defined on paper, they were very literally being taken away in real life. The exact same hands shackling a man in slavery wrote that all were created equally. Life was beaten. Liberty was obstructed. Happiness was withheld. Safety was not sought. While these famous words were printed into our future as a fact they were simultaneously being re-defined in the present by reality. They were engraved by human hands but ignored in human hearts. Its beauty has hung as a loud banner above us yet its blasphemy has been laid as a silent foundation below us.

As I’ve been thinking a lot about our current state of civil unrest, rooted in the past and twisted up into our present, a word keeps coming to mind. This word or idea is not an attempt to give a one-size-fits-all approach to issues varying in complexity and severity. I hope I am not oversimplifying or under-emphasizing. Yet I think this category with its differing reasons and ranks inside of it (including racial injustice) are worth taking a step back to recognize on the whole. To see as a broader theme. We might not even notice it but I’ve become convinced that this broader theme shows up in our own day to day interactions. It manifests itself in everything from belittling comments, to abusive behaviors, all the way to murderous acts. It is ranging from daily pornography to deadly prejudices. It has been trickled down all around us and rooted itself deeply inside of us.

Dehumanization.

Webster defines this as “depriving someone of human qualities, personality, or dignity: such as a: to subject someone to conditions or treatment that are inhumane or degrading b: to address or portray someone in a way that obscures or demeans that person’s humanity or individuality c: to remove or reduce human involvement or interaction in something, such as process or place.”

We, too, can be guilty of soulfully pouring over the Declaration of Independence for all peoples while blindly practicing its contradictions right around us. How then, along with fighting for liberty and justice on local and national levels, do we also bring it down to our neighborhoods? Our schools? Our work places? Our very own houses?

I think we need to do the raw and dark and deep and good work of re-humanization.

 

Re-establish what gives human dignity

The annoyingly obvious question we should never cease to ask ourselves is “why?” I think this is especially true when we see that our lived realities are not mirroring our proposed reasoning. Consenting to the truth of a definition is not the same as acting out of its implications. Maybe during this specific time in history we are being given a chance to stop and examine. To ask, in the face of pandemics and protests, if our definition of human value is lining up with our response to black lives begging to breathe or vulnerable populations asking to be protected?

Ekemini Uwan says, “once we accept, and grieve, that our old way of life is gone, we can build a better future.” If we want to move away from our old normal and towards a better normal we have to be really really honest. Painfully so. And we begin at the beginning again. We ask ourselves to define human dignity. To re-establish what is every person’s worth.

For me, the unshakable barometer of all living being’s value starts with a Creator. A Maker. One who crafted all human beings in His very image. Not apportioning himself in varying degrees of whom he favors. But to all. Completely equal image bearers. Given a mind and heart and even a soul. As David Closson says “Man is like a statue erected by an ancient king—as the statue bore the image of the king and signified rulership, man bears God’s image in the cosmic temple of the world, representing his authority and dominion. Man is the visible representation of the invisible God. If one wants to know what God looks like, simply look at man, the crowning jewel of creation and the only creature made in God’s image and likeness.”

Without some source of a foundational definition we have no starting point. And without a starting point we cannot convince anyone else, let alone ourselves, of what true liberty and justice will look like for all. Or why it even matters. It shapes the lenses through which we see the most bloody times in our history and the most horrific happenings in our present day. Without it, what moral leg do we have to stand on against slave trade and school shootings? What basis do we start with when talking about the horror of the holocaust and the devastation of massacres? What do we make of genocides and plagues and terrorist attacks and different kinds of wars? How do we speak out against human trafficking or domestic violence or child pornography or sexual assault? It is not enough for any of us to say that something simply is. Dignity and equality do not define themselves. That’s why entire people groups have been abused in the name of superiority, used as means of punishment, and written off as primitive animals without a soul.

Once we have established, or re-established, our unwavering definition of human dignity we have to begin the hard work of realigning the every day ways we think and interact and respond, back to it. If in the end our words and our actions continue to be impossibly ill-aligned and unrecognizable from one another we have to be willing to ask do I really, thoroughly, honestly, believe this to be true about all humanity?

Re-prioritize people to their place

Sometimes we realize that we have begun to subtly assign and apportion human dignity based off of underlying beliefs that are different than what we claim out loud for them to be. For some these beliefs have been silently shaped over time and we do not like them when they are exposed to us. While for others they have been consciously chosen and we do not want to change them. They may stem from our belief in divine design or natural designation. We may think they come from evolutionary make up, societal shaping, generational history, or personal choices. We may end up recoiling over our deep down barometer for human dignity or we may, in fact, revel in it.

Wherever we land, though, I think we must land there consciously. We cannot move on into any sort of action, or really even awareness, until we have gotten really honest with ourselves. Until we have meticulously thought through, for ourselves, what qualifies human dignity. Until we have concluded if there are ever any exclusions or exceptions to this qualification. Until we have critically assessed our definitions and called out the parts that have begun to be bent away from its original form. From there, where we spot inaccuracies and inconsistencies in our rawest form and from our deepest places, can we identify what is bubbling over on the outside. Can we see its out workings and implications.

One of these gauges and indications is where our priorities lie. Naturally, we desire things such as power, pleasure, possessions, and praise… even over people. When this happens we begin to see a person as a mere object standing between where we are and what we want. We then make the choice to either remove them as an obstacle or use them as a stepping stone. But that’s not our only option. We don’t actually have to land there. Instead, we can see what the layout of our placement and prioritization is becoming and we can do the continual work of putting people back in their proper places. Realigning them with our truest definition of who we have already established that they are.

So we take them out of the middle. Again and again and again. The middle is where they are reduced to merely a means of our own end. But when they are placed on the other side, they become a person again. They are repositioned to become the end itself. The focus. The priority. The point of value. It is here, directly in line with us, that we can actually exercise power, experience pleasure, enjoy possessions, and give/receive praise in mutually healthy and beneficial ways. We can function as one. Not as objects of helps or hindrances to where we’re headed but as human beings with equal worth and irrevocable dignity.

Re-define how it plays itself out in society

When the choice we are handed lies between people and possessions the answer seems fairly obvious. Unnatural to choose, perhaps, but hard to actually argue against. But what would it be like if instead of just dethroning power and praise over people, we had to choose between actual personhood? If we were somehow faced with the choice between which two people could live. What then, would rise to the surface in us? Would our definition of equal dignity and worth for all human beings quickly become met with a barometer full of assessments and questions? Maybe our instinct would be to consider their ages, or factor in their accomplishments, or weigh their contributions, or compare their records.

While we ourselves will likely never be faced with such a choice, what happens in us when we hear about a gang related shooting? An elderly lady passing peacefully in a nursing home? A firefighter not making it out of a burning building in time? A person of color begging for breath? A child’s heart monitor no longer beeping? A prisoner being beat to death?

In the midst of everyday headlines filled with tragedy and trauma we are left with the choice to listen to our own visceral reactions and mental responses. To be mindful of our internal questions about the person. To pay attention to our assumptions based off of where they were and who they were with and what they were wearing. When we sit with our own honest responses they will answer the question for us of who we deem more deserving of death and who we see as less worthy of life. When we are present with ourselves in this way we can actually catch our minds going to the places we do not want them to and then we can do the repetitive work of realigning and reminding ourselves why none of those things matter. It is in these small and crucial moments we can convince ourselves once again that all human life is equally dignified. And then we are conscious of where we allow our conclusion to go. About them. About humanity. About life. And even about death.

Dehumanization, though, is not just about dying at the hand of injustice. It is also about living from a place of inequality. Those we deem most tragic in death, we will also see as most worthy in life. We may not ever say that a person is not actually worthy to live. But, to what do we assign their quality of life? Is it one of equal opportunity for education and position? Is it one that is given a strong voice and sought after as a needed presence? Is their mind just as smart, their body just as capable, and their being just as strong?

Our degradation and objectification of others comes out in the every day ways we respond and relate to them. In the manner we address them in and the time we give to them. It seeps through in the ways we esteem certain jobs, praise specific positions, and place power with select people. This shows up in the way we smile at the CEO behind a desk and ignore the homeless person behind a sign. In the way we greet the guest at our front door and mumble a hurried hello to the server at our table. In the way we engage or dismiss children. In the way we talk tenderly or mockingly about the elderly. In the way we clap for those who wear uniforms and yell at those who answer our phone calls. In the way we keep together those who are the same and cast off those who are different. In the way we classify intelligence and dismiss disability. In the way we label foster kids as troubled instead of laboring with them as traumatized.

Being worthy to stay alive is not the same as being worthy to really live. To live in a way that we all long for: without being treated as inherently inferior or locked in as innately less than.

 

Re-build what has been lost

“When we see people without recognizing that they have a story, we become pornographers. Pornography almost by definition lacks a story.” I think Ragan Sutterfield was on to something far more than only poses and pixels. The same effortless reduction of a person into a prize for our own self pleasure does not just stay on our screens. It manifests itself into the people we pass by quickly, the newcomers we get to know slowly, and the classmates and coworkers and church members we interact with daily.

They could be young or old or rich or poor. They could have thousands of followers on Instagram. They could have dropped out of high school. They could have graduated with the highest degree. They could live in the suburbs or the city. They could be a white person walking down our street or a brown person grazing our shoulder in a grocery store or a black person pulling up next to us in a parking lot. An immigrant or an international student. One who is pushed in wheelchair or relies on a walker. They could be wearing a suit or sagging shorts. Someone who is bilingual, reads brail, or communicates with sign language. They could have eyes that are stone cold or ones filled up with tears.

But what do we see?

Do we see a service or a statistic or a social status? Or do we see a story? A lived experience. A survived trauma. A family they come home to. A job they lost. A generational cycle they were born into. An addiction they are overcoming. A disorder they are functioning with. Do we hear their voice behind their language, see their skin beneath their clothes, and remember their blood beneath their bodies?

As Lore Wilbert powerfully puts it, “when we enter a room, we often forget the blood—the story—pulsing beneath the skin. When we divorce a body from the story—the humanity and the life—that God has given it, it becomes a mere object to us. We can no more separate our blood from our bodies than we can separate our story from the bodies who have lived through it.”

It doesn’t matter who they are, where they come from, or how long they’ve been in our life; we can simply forget what it means for someone to be wholly human. There is a lot inside there, living inside of them, that we forget to see. To look for. To ask about.

We are all too quick to forget that people are dignified- with bruised skin, with broken bones, with beating hearts- fully and fiercely, dignified.