“I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me.” -John 17:21
When I moved to Minnesota, I knew that finding community was something I would need to be proactive about if I wanted to have it. And more than wanting it, I knew I needed it to survive the next 4 years transplanted in this new place (because I am a seasoned transplanter now, a connector by nature, and because we all need community). I also knew that praying with people is a good way to move past the surface and get to know them more deeply, and that on the journey of faith we need each other’s regular support and encouragement. I decided to forgo any Bible study plan or book study or formal structure and just invite a few people to gather and pray for each other for whatever is on our hearts each week. A few brave souls said yes and were even willing to drag themselves out of bed early and trudge through the Minnesotan snow to arrive at Caribou Coffee by 6:30 in the morning each week (ok, we usually rolled in by 6:45 or 7…) so that I could get back home to the kids before Ben had to leave for school. The encouragement we’ve received from each other has kept us showing up faithfully for 3 years, with scarcely anyone missing a week unless we were out of town. We’ve prayed through birth, death, illness, career, unemployment, dating, marriage, pregnancy, miscarriage, parenting, adoption, and the private struggles of our own hearts. We’ve said goodbye to one who moved away and welcomed another who moved in (into the same house!). I’m about to move away now, too, but these women, along with a few others who have done some evening Bible studies with us in homes where we’ve shared our hearts even more, have become some of my dearest friends. And I have been changed.
“Some men came carrying a paralyzed man on a mat and tried to take him into the house to lay him before Jesus. When they could not find a way to do this because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on his mat through the tiles into the middle of the crowd, right in front of Jesus. When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” -Luke 5:18-20
Prayer is one of the aspects of my faith that I’ve sometimes struggled with, because it can seem superstitious at times. I do trust God, but is my prayer really going to influence what he does or allows, or has he already made up his mind? Do multiple people praying for the same thing have a greater impact? Honestly, I don’t really know. His Word says that the prayers of a person after His own heart are powerful and effective, and that because Jesus broke down the wall between us and God, serving as our High Priest, we can approach his throne boldly and with confidence as his beloved children, and that he wants to give us good gifts if we ask in faith, just as any parent wants to give their child good things and can sometimes be swayed if their child asks rightly. So we ask. And we have seen God answer a lot of prayers in the past 3 years. We actually have notebooks full of them.
“Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” -Matthew 18:20
Yet it turns out that getting those answers we wanted is not what has been the most impactful thing about the experience of praying together. We’ve never tallied up the yeses we got, and after reporting our ‘praises’ and thanking God for his provision, we usually sort of forget what he has done and move onto thinking about whatever new concerns we are preoccupied with. That’s kind of the way life goes, isn’t it? We’re always onto new things. And God is always up to something new. The act of consistent prayer has been more about bringing our hearts and each other to the feet of Jesus and finding ourselves changed.
“See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland… I provide water in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland,to give drink to my people, my chosen, the people I formed for myself, that they may proclaim my praise.” Isaiah 43:19-21
These women, and the church community I have found in Minnesota (along with a few other key people) have taught me a lot in the last few years about what the church is supposed to be. We’ve disagreed about things, some pretty fundamental things actually. In fact, the church most of us attend is not where I would have put myself and honestly still is not what I see as the best “fit” for our family in terms of theological perspectives. But my new little family (I was very pregnant with Elden the first time we showed up there!) was welcomed with open arms and shown incredible kindness, and they’ve stuck with us for the long haul. For example, one of them got up early on her day off yesterday to help me supervise the moving company and run errands for me, even as I am leaving. Another is having a dessert party tonight so that I can spend my last night in Minnesota surrounded by friends and cannolis. That’s just the tip of the iceberg- such generosity has been abundant around us during our time here. That kind of community is so significant and meaningful and beautiful and is a big part of why we stayed. That’s what the church is supposed to do- take care of people- and in our experience of Centennial, they’re really good at that. I think that’s why God decided that this church was in fact the best fit for us, at least for a season. (We tried to leave at one point but God had us stay!) It took me a couple years, but I finally figured out why. I needed some lessons in love, and in unity. I can see how I’ve been changed for the better. I don’t mean that in a fluffy, sentimental way. That unity was hard-won at times. God used this time and these people to shape me in ways I wasn’t prepared for, and though I fought it at first, I am incredibly thankful.
“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.” -Ephesians 4:2-7
Jesus’ dream for the church was that we would be one, even as he and the Father are one. It’s hard to imagine. Especially if you’ve dealt with people or churches at all. Flaws of the Church aside, I really do respect the differences of each denomination of Christianity and how they each seem to focus on a different aspect of God and what he cares about and reflect that to the world. I could see myself in a variety of those denominations, and I have been a part of several of them. But despite my appreciation for the differences, I still don’t think I believed that unity was possible. Some differences just feel too big, too emotionally charged. Wouldn’t unity really just mean compromise, somebody watering down deeply held convictions and losing who they are in the process? Wouldn’t it be an artificial sameness, and wouldn’t something important be lost? Or if individuality could actually be retained, wouldn’t it mean adopting an attitude that anybody and everybody must be right, that truth is all relative? As important as I think it is to dialogue, to understand, to love (it really is.), I just couldn’t bring myself to feel like that watered-down brand of unity was worth it, or that a better version was possible. But I saw it happen, I experienced it here in this place, with these people. God showed me it was possible, and so dear to his heart, and so important for us to pursue. He loves his Church, his Bride, and if we are to be people after his heart, we must love Her, too.
I attempted to express to my “Prayeribou” friends in a letter the impact they have had on me, and while it feels private in a way, it also feels like it’s something that is important to share with the world- a glimpse of what community, and the church, can look like when we commit to actually being the church for each other, and why we all need it desperately:
My Dearest Minnesotan friends-
As I prepare to move, I am coming to see just how much I have been impacted by the friends I have made here and how much I have learned from and been changed by each of you. It has been gradual and almost unnoticed at times, but when I think about who I was four years ago, I have certainly been changed as we’ve all done life together and learned from each other’s different perspectives, personalities and abilities and enjoyed each other’s camaraderie and encouragement. I admit that there have been brief moments when, due to insecurity about my own rough edges, I have started to want to escape that community and start fresh in a new place, but as soon as I think that thought I realize that that is the gift, hard and beautiful, of genuine community- that we stick it out through any of our rough edges, misunderstandings, disagreements or awkwardness. That is why there is depth to our friendships (along with the fact that we regularly share our lives, hearts and concerns). I wouldn’t trade it for anything. And it’s also in that place where we experience grace- being loved, rough edges and all, and find the courage and acceptance to let go of insecurities or self-loathing. Though hopefully none of you is feeling that. But we’ve gotten close enough to start to be honest about how we do experience that sometimes, and if you are, it is safe and probably important to share that with each other. I think things fester and grow when they’re kept secret, another reason why community is so essential, to bring light and free us from the fears and lies we start to believe when alone. So if I had the choice, I would STAY, and choose messy, beautiful community. And although I can’t stay physically, my hope and request of each of us is that we choose to “stay” and engage in community with each other, learning continually how to love and be loved, sharing our unique contributions and being blessed by each other’s, and being stretched by our differences. This is what my time in Minnesota and each of you has taught me- that unity really is possible (I don’t think I believed it before.), even though it is hard to do or even comprehend. And that it is worth it. And that Jesus longed for it for us, prayed for it, commanded it. So I made these bracelets (in my typical corny, symbol-loving style…), to be a tangible representation of community and unity and a reminder to stay engaged and love each other through differences, busyness, and the ups and downs of life. Sometimes our insecurities and pride try to suggest otherwise but we need each other, and God designed it that way, and it is good! So please keep doing it! That’s my going-away request. And it is my commitment to you, that I will stay connected in heart to you even across the miles and that I will also be brave and open with new people God brings across my path, despite the risks and the knowing that I’ll be moving on from there in even a shorter time than I was here. You are proof that it is worth it.
Thank you for welcoming me in, loving me despite my imperfections, and sharing with me the gift of yourself.
Along with this I wrote a little note to each individually to thank them for the impact they’ve had on me. There is a portion of one of those that I want to share with you because it is about an event that has played over in my mind many times:
“I remember one night at a Bible study at Shannon’s house when I was starting to feel a little tense as people began to debate positions on a controversial topic, especially since I got the feeling I fell on the unpopular side, and then you spoke up. You decided to articulate, in detail, many of the reasons why someone would take the opposite position from yours, and how you respected them and knew their good intentions. Oh, and how you were going to go and marry one of them! I was stunned that you would be so willing to listen to people who were different from you and believe the best about them and advocate for them. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard someone show such empathy and respect for people who disagree with them, especially on a heated topic. I’ve thought about that moment many times since, and it has been playing a big part in God teaching me about unity in the church, and love for people outside the church as well … I think it is an example of what he wants to do in the Church and in the world, and you have been a reflection of His heart to me.”
Guys, this kind of unity really is possible.
We could be One.
And we could light up the world.
Thank you for showing me how.
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”- John 13:34-35