I got the
opportunity honor to serve at a Christmas tea at a local recovery/rehab ministry for women called Mary's Song. Mary's Song is a ministry of Victory Fellowship here in NOLA and is a long-term facility where women come and live (usually for 12 months) as they overcome their addictions and begin their new lives. I was asked by my friend S. back in September if I would like to be a part of the tea. I had recently gone through an amazing though tough (as in lots of brokenness) time in my relationship with God, and I knew He was calling me to be more of a "walker" of my faith. As in go into the hard places and do hard things. Not gonna lie, I was so nervous and had no clue about ministering to women who were former (or recovering) addicts and some even coming out of the adult entertainment industry (a business choice often used to fuel their addictions). But I felt God pushing me to go, so I told S. yes.
So the tea was this past Saturday. I showed up with pretty much the intention of just being hands and feet to serve. I kept my eyes peeled for things to do, things I could do behind the scenes to make sure everything got done in time for the tea. When a volunteer was needed, I raised my hand. I didn't know what to say to any of the women of Mary's Song, but I could work.
As the clock wound down closer to the time the women would come into the fellowship room, I could feel my heart starting to race a little bit. As I helped set the tables, I saw the design was to have 3 Mary's Song women and three "volunteer" (I don't know what else to call us!) women at each table. I wanted to sit by my friend A. but I also wanted to be at a table with a volunteer who had been to the tea before. You know, so I could just kind of hang on to their coattails as they talked.
I started walking around asking whose table was whose. I started to panic even more when I realized each table had two volunteers already sitting at it. Every table but one. So A. and I sat down at the last table. I waited, just knowing another volunteer - a more seasoned, experienced volunteer (it's was A's first year volunteering too) would come and sit with us. No one came.
I almost had to laugh, because I could feel God's sense of humor over the whole thing. I was so scared to talk, and had no clue what to say, so I made my own little plans to make sure I stayed as comfortable as possible. And He said, "Nope! I'm going to put you at a table where you'll be forced to begin conversations with these women. You are not going to 'tag along' on someone else. You're not only sharing the Gospel; you're sharing your life today."
We visited for a few minutes with the three women at our table. Their names are Alice, April, & Rose (I'm writing them so I don't forget them). Each had a story - hard drug use, previous rehab experience, children taken away, jail time. Each had memories from a past before addiction overtook their lives. And each had a testimony at how far Christ has brought them in their journey. Fifteen minutes into the tea and I had tears in my eyes.
S. opened with a greeting and prayer, and then another volunteer came up and read the Christmas story from Luke 2. I chanced a glance around the room and my heart swelled. All around me, women from Mary's Song were crying into their napkins. Some had their hands thrown in the air in praise, heads back and eyes closed. I immediately become convicted again: when is the last time I was moved to that much emotion hearing about the birth of my Savior? I confess I've slipped into a complacent mentality where very often the reading of the Christmas story is just one more thing I check off my Things Christians Do At Christmas list. It goes no further than my head. I repented of the hardening of my heart over the miracle of God come down to live among His people.
Then my friend A. got up to speak and share her testimony of addiction and recovery and victory in Christ. My socks were blown off, and the tears came again. A, I'm so proud of you and I rejoice with you at how far Christ has brought you! A few other women shared their testimonies, and more tears came from around the room as the name of Christ was blessed and He was praised for His healing and deliverance.
We then moved to the time of gifts. Each woman was able to make a bracelet for her "Secret Santa" name, and each was asked to think of an encouraging word to pass on to her sister when giving the bracelet. I watched as the women hugged and cried as they blessed each other with prayer and encouragement.
Then each lady got her gift bag from under the tree. People generously donate the small collection of gifts, but you've never seen women so grateful. They looked in awe at the small journals, immediately applied the lipgloss, and shed tears over the stamped envelopes that went along with blank Christmas cards to send to their families.
Finally it was time to reveal the big surprise. About a month ago, S. was given a "Christmas list" by the director of things the women needed. These items were mostly for personal hygiene - toothbrushes and toothpaste, shampoo, brushes, even underwear. We received many donations - including huge gifts of dental products from LSU Dental School - and the basket was packed to overflowing. As S. pulled the blanket off the table to reveal the goodies, about 75% of the women burst into tears and raised their hands in gratitude to the Lord.
Over toothpaste. Over underwear. I couldn't keep the tears back myself.
Over toothpaste. Over underwear. I couldn't keep the tears back myself.
A bagpipe player came in and played "Amazing Grace" on the bagpipes, which is the song they use to close their morning worship services. All around hands lifted, tears streamed. I bit a hole in the side of my cheek trying to not cry harder.
We then started to pack up and hug the women goodbye. April & I clung to each other and we both sobbed for probably a full minute straight. When I left, I was shaking.
And I realized then: I'd just seen the church.
* * *
About this time last year, my hubby was neck-deep in interviewing with a church that, from all outward appearances, was calling us there. In fact, had we not declined the invitation, we'd be there at this very moment. Looking back, I now know I was not ready to be a pastor's wife. My notion of church was completely screwed up.
For so long - decades, if not longer - we've defined church as a building. Growing the church doesn't mean sharing the Gospel with the lost. It means bringing in more bodies to our existing buildings by any means necessary. It's been a courting of the rich, the affluent, the powerful. (Please understand I am not criticizing those with money or power - I know rich and/or powerful people who honor Christ with their lives, their wallets, and their influence; what disgusts me is when ministers show favoritism to those individuals over individuals without those means.)
This past year has wrecked my previous notions of church. Wrecked them. Do we need to meet together as a body to worship and study God's Word and encourage one another and pray for one another? Absolutely - we're told not to forsake the fellowship of believers. But what we do inside the building is not church. Church is what happens when Christ's name and salvation are preached. Church is what happens when souls that are striving along without Christ come in contact with His glorious grace and become transformed. Church is what happens when the power of the Gospel sets people free.
It is not about getting behinds in the seats. It is not about a number on a wooden plaque at the side of the sanctuary door. It is not about fancy lights or a new projector or a dynamic speaker. It's not about how many numbers follow the heading of income on the church budget. It's not about how full the parking lot is. Ministers (and by ministers I mean everyone who calls on the name of the Lord, because we ALL have a ministry whether we think we do or not!) have got to stop chasing after the things of this world and trying to somehow reconcile them with the things of God.
Some of you who know me personally might be saying, "Tara, isn't your husband going into full time ministry? How can you say those things aren't important when they will directly affect you and your family?"
My response: So? Do you honestly mean to tell me that I can trust Christ for the eternal placement of my soul, but I can't trust Him to make sure the light bill gets paid, or that our family is provided for? That I have to balance my faith in one hand with schemes in the other to make sure the needs are met?
As I looked at these women this weekend - beautiful on the outside despite drugs and alcohol trying to destroy them, and beautiful on the inside because of the transforming, life-giving grace of Christ - I knew this was the church I wanted to be a part of. I want to be a part of the church that shares their life and their love with their communities. That shares the Gospel with society's rejects. That reaches out to those in bondage and offers them the true chain-breaker, the Rescuer, who is Jesus.
These people aren't popular. They aren't profitable. But they are loved. Loved by a Savior willing to die for them because He loved them so much.
I love the movement I am seeing among believers today, the movement to take church outside the building, and to fulfill Paul's description of being the church. I pray I never become complacent about this issue again.
I know this sounds strange for someone whose family is heading into full-time ministry. It would make sense to want what is safe, to follow the models we've seen in the past where church is "done" and yet there's still the cushy comfort zone. But there is nothing - nothing - more important than the Gospel, and there is nothing I can place over it, especially not my own security.
I am so grateful for my husband, a man who truly loves those the world deems unlovable. I am so thankful for my daughter, a child who even in her young life loves every child she meets. I'm thankful for our church, who models on a large scale this Gospel mobility God is calling me to take up.
Most of all, I am thankful to Christ - for grace. The grace to live, the grace to challenge, the grace that makes me able to repent of my mistakes, and the grace to move forward in the grace of His power.
I hope everyone reading this has a wonderful Christmas this year, and as you focus on the miraculous gift of God and love come down to reconcile to His creation, that you too will be challenged to make known the riches of His Gospel - during this season, and all seasons.
"Long lay the world in sin and error, pining
Till He appeared and the soul found its worth..."