the worst place to feel alone

1234505_547457285295_363967455_n

I visited a church today in my new town.  They say their vision is to connect people with God, and to reach out to the community, so I was excited to try it out.  I got there a little early, and honestly, I didn’t know where to go until the doors opened.  So I sat by myself on a bench beside the sanctuary and waited.

While I waited, people passed.  So many people passed.  Pastors, worship team members, regular attenders, and yes, greeters and welcomers.  I tried to look up and make eye contact so that I could make some connections with people.  But no one said anything to me.  No one stopped.  No one even smiled in my direction.  I know this is not absurd or abnormal.  But, you know what?  It kind of hurt.

I felt sad inside.  I felt awkward.  Part of me wanted to walk right back to my car.  Part of me didn’t even want to give that church a chance.  And all of me was missing the places I’ve left, who know my name and who are happy to see me and who welcome me with open arms.

And hey, for me, I’ll get over it.  I know that people get nervous to say hi to someone new.  I know that not all churches are good at that stuff.  I know that sometimes you have to push your way into a new community.  I know that Jesus is bigger than all of that.

But, for some people, it matters more.  Some people come to church, and they’re desperate and hurting and broken.  Some people come to church and they don’t know much about God or worship or how to “do” church.  Some people come, and they’re scared and they’re prepared to be rejected.  And some people, like me, come and they already know Jesus, but could really use a friend.

Jesus said that the world will know we belong to Him by our love for one another (Jn. 13:35).  I was talking with a friend just last week about how hard it is sometimes to feel loved in a community of Christians.  In my life, the two places I’ve felt most left out were both Christian communities.  And usually, it was during the hardest times in life that I felt the least welcomed and cared for.

“It’s never intentional,” my friend said.

And that’s exactly it.

So many communities aren’t intentional.  Not intentionally welcoming, not intentionally helpful, not intentionally going out of their own comfort zones to show Jesus’ love to others.  It’s not just a problem for churches, it’s everywhere.  Small groups and Bible studies, Christian organizations and institutions, circles of friends, everywhere.

And actually, I think I know why it’s like that.  Because LOVE changes things.  Love is powerful.  If you’ve ever been in a community where Jesus’ love is real among you, you know what I mean.  So no wonder.  No wonder that’s the thing that is so often stolen by fear or insecurity or pride.  No wonder that’s often the thing that falls to the wayside. Oh Lord, help us to combat the opposition and learn to love anyway.  Let’s be more about seeing God’s Kingdom grow than protecting our own little social group.  Let’s give people a chance – whether we’ve left others out or we’ve been left out.  Let’s believe better things for the Church, and be part of the change.

That was my favorite thing about my church in Bangkok.  We were all about loving people toward God.  We were a strange mix of every nationality and personality and style, and we definitely didn’t love everyone perfectly, but we sure did our best.

I’ll probably go back next week and give that church another try. They seem to be about Jesus in what they do, and I’m sure there are some wonderful people there. (And this town definitely has its share of welcoming churches too, please know.)

But next time we go to church, or are in any Christian community, or any place of belonging for that matter, and we see someone sitting there alone, maybe we should just go and talk to them.  Who knows how God might use that.

how baseball saved my family

mariners If you knew my stepdad, Jerry May, you know that the things he loved, he obsessed over — and the things he didn’t love, he didn’t want anything to do with.  When my mom first married him in 1993, baseball, Springer Spaniels, hot pancakes, and my lovely mother were all among the things that he loved.  And I guess you could say that was among the things he didn’t want anything to do with.

One morning, Jerry and I were sitting across from each other at the kitchen table.

“Talk to each other,” my mom said.

“What’s there to talk about?” Jerry replied, “She doesn’t like baseball and I don’t like Disneyland.”

So I kept my distance.  I spent long hours playing imaginary games in my room, waiting for moments when I could steal my mom away and be with only her.  As an eight year old, I was a silly one (can you just imagine), and I know I talked too much.  He was opinionated and quick-tempered, and rather intimidating.  The only thing that brought us together was our mutual love for my mom.

And that’s the way it was, until the summer of 1995.

Seattle fans will tell you that our whole area has been under a “Northwest curse” for years, where playoff appearances and champion rings have been few and far between — if they exist at all.  So when a team starts to win, it captures the hearts of the whole city, and everywhere nearby.  At that time, the Mariners had never been in the playoffs and would fade in the background of every Seattle summer.  In August of 1995, as usual, they were over 10 games behind the first-place team in their division, when a peculiar thing happened: the Mariners started to win.  They went on a rampage and, surprising everyone, caught up to the first-place Angels.  Everyone was talking about it — the people on the news, the lady at the grocery store, the kids at school.  We’d make up chants while waiting in line, and turn the radio on to listen to the games during class.  I knew nothing about baseball, but even I was hooked.

I started to watch the games in my bedroom at night, memorizing the starting line ups and falling in love with the faces of our ragtag, unpretentious Mariners — Joey Cora, Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner, Ken Griffey, Jr.

And one evening, I’m not even sure why, I mustered up the courage to walk into the kitchen, where my stepdad was also watching the game…and to join him.  It became our “thing.”  We watched the Mariners win the one-game face off with the Angels — Randy Johnson, his hands pointed up to the sky in victory.  We watched as Ken Griffey, Jr. scored the winning run to beat all odds and defeat the Yanks in our first-ever round of playoff games. We watched them right to the end of their crazy ride that year, when they were finally stopped by the Indians — I can still picture Alex Rodriguez wrapping his arm around a weeping Joey Cora in the dugout after the loss.

But so much more than baseball was awakened in our hearts that summer.  Jerry and I had found something we could enjoy together, and experience together, and hope for together.  It opened the door for real relationship, and everything after that was different.

I can’t say that Jerry and I were ever especially close, and there are certainly many memories in our family I’d rather forget.  But he loved me, and I loved him.  He was deep, passionate, emotional.  He was a writer, a teacher, an artist, a speaker.  In years that followed, it ended up we had much more in common than we had ever known earlier.  I’m thankful for those ways that he influenced me, and I’m thankful for that summer, when baseball saved our family and paved the way for all the other good times we shared.

Jerry passed away this past April.  The Mariners lost for a whole week after that day.  Now, they’re back in a playoff race, and I’m thinking it would be pretty special it they made it this year.  

storing up treasures: saying goodbye to a place I love

20140616-213624-77784705.jpg

I had to say goodbye this week, and it was so much harder than I expected. Because when you really, truly leave a place, you’re not just saying goodbye to people and things (if that weren’t enough), but you’re saying goodbye to an era, to the way those people and things made you feel, to life as you knew it.

I can’t exactly explain what my five years in Bangkok have meant to me. People try to tell me it was a “great experience,” and they call it a “wonderful opportunity” I was blessed to have. But to me, it was so much more than that. To me, Thailand wasn’t just a great experience, Thailand was real life. And to me, Thailand wasn’t just a foreign mission field, Thailand was home. My friends in Bangkok were not simply fellow comrades on some adventure, or a new connection to another culture, they were the ones who lived everyday life with me, who prayed forward victories beside me, who held me when I wept, who knew me through the good and bad, and loved me still.

Ironically, I can’t say that most of my time in Bangkok was easy or even necessarily happy. Often, I felt disconnected and discouraged. Often, I wondered where I even fit in that big city, and if pouring out my heart was worth it there. But, I think, actually, it was through those things that God showed me the sweetness and the depth of persevering love, and through the trials, He opened my heart to receive love from others when I needed it most.

Now, looking back, I’m so thankful for every season of my Bangkok years, and the sadness I feel today is really rather sweet, and rich, and meaningful. God really does use every little thing to shape us, and change us, and to work in our lives and relationships.

I’ve been reading Matthew 6 a lot lately, the part when Jesus tells us to store up treasures in heaven — the kind that can’t be stolen or destroyed. And I really believe that maybe relationships are some of the precious treasures Jesus speaks of. Invest in others. Love people. It’s always worth it. These are eternal, and in Jesus, relationships are forever.

My dear friend, Gloria, told me this week that God can expand our hearts to fit all the new things and people He places in our lives, in all the places He takes us. It made me feel so happy inside to remember that when we’re talking about love, there is always room for more.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” [Mt. 6:19-21]