"I Press on Toward the Goal" {A Not-By-Chance Encounter}

"They held me up."

It was a totally unplanned conversation with a dear friend I hadn't seen in months. She had asked about our new church: "How are things going?" I had replied what I always reply when asked that question: "We're loving it!" 

Her face registered intense shock. "Really??"

A bit surprised, I replied, "Really."

At which point, she grabbed my arm and said, "Why? What do you love about it?" 

I wasn't really sure how to answer at that point.  My mind immediately flooded with things I love about our little church...our precious little church family, solid meaty preaching of the Word, hymns sung in a joyful noise, our pastor and his wife, the simplicity of worship and fellowship, and the added bonus of the cows looking in the windows at us on Sunday morning, with an occasional, "Moooooooo" wafting through as background noise for the sermon. 

But I realized those weren't the answers she was looking for. 

Some of the things we love about our new church are things we loved about our old church, too. And of the things that are different...they weren't in any way something we would have gone church shopping to look for.  There are things we love about our new church that are different from our old church, and things we loved about our old church that are different than our new church. And none of it had to do with what I suddenly sensed was her deeper question. 

"There are lots of things we love about Grace, but there are lots of things we loved about Oak Cliff, too. The main reason we love Grace is that we know...beyond a shadow of a doubt know...that that is where God wants us to be right now.  He led us there, and we love it because it is where we are supposed to be." 

The expression on her face changed completely. "I understand," she said quietly.

As we continued to talk, I shared more of the story (in semi-short form), and we shared and cried together.  At one point I said, "This was not something we would ever have planned. Ever.  Oak Cliff was our family. Truly."  She nodded in understanding and agreement: "Ours, too." 

We talked about personal and family struggles on both sides, and how much our church family meant to us. My two best friends' names came up. We discussed the fact that one friend and her family had made the move at the same time we had...although God had worked independently in us and in our husbands in leading us to Grace at the same time...and that the other friend is still at Oak Cliff...teaching the Sunday School class I grieved over leaving, in fact. 

At that point I said, "I could not begin to imagine leaving them...not being in church with them every week."  Tears spilled out of my eyes as I said, "You know, through all the sadness and pain and trauma we went through a few years ago...they held me up. God used them to literally keep me going when I felt like I couldn't take another step. They carried our burdens. They prayed for and with me when I couldn't pray, and they read and quoted and typed God's Word to me when I literally wasn't able to open my Bible." 

We had gone from talking about our church move to talking about God's work in our lives. This friend is no stranger to suffering.  She shared with me about some of what God has done in her life through the trials she has experienced in recent years.

Near the end of our visit, she told me that she had come to a realization about those trials which have caused her such agony.  I'll paraphrase to leave out personal details, and because I can't remember the precise wording, but her meaning was incredibly clear...and very familiar. She wouldn't change it if she could...not if she had to give up what God has done in her life through it.

It was my turn to nod in agreement.  I had said the same words to Bro. Kent a few years ago about our situation. "I wouldn't give up the growth...what He has taught me about Himself..." Those are hard words...a hard place to come to...and yet, those who've been there understand completely.

It's been over 24 hours since that conversation, and yet I still feel a bit like Mary, "treasuring these things in her heart".  Our visit was one I will treasure forever...as we both agreed, the unexpected encounter was no accident.  God knew that we both needed the conversation, the tears, and the hugs that overflowed.  

As I've pondered and treasured that time, I'm reminded of several things:

1. Church family is important. Let me say that again, Church family is important! I know that I have been abundantly blessed in this area...all my life, in fact, with some very limited exceptions. I know that there are those who struggle in this area...who have truly tried to find and become part of such a church family, and been unable to.  I grieve for those, and pray for God's provision in this area.

I also grieve, in a different way, for those who have allowed hurt, disappointment, discontent, bitterness, or any one of a number of excuses to keep them from becoming...or staying...part of a church body. Churches are not perfect.  The people in churches are not perfect.  The thing we so often forget in this area, though, is that you and I aren't perfect, either!  We are to love the church, perfect or not, and be part of a local, physical church fellowship if at all possible. This is another whole blog post, but I was just reminded all over again during this visit that church family is important. (And a gift and a blessing!)

2.  I am abundantly rich in the people God has put in my life.  God has blessed me in so many ways...not only with family, but with church families...several, through the years, and dear, precious friends. I was reminded again during our conversation yesterday of those"best" friends and the ways God has used them in my life over the years and what a gigantic, tremendous blessing they are to me and to my family. 

I have also been reminded this week of so many other people through the years...including the friend who inspired this post...who have loved and encouraged and admonished and invested in my life and in the lives of my family.  What treasures each and every one are.  How different my life would be without even one! 

3. We talk...a lot...about God's sovereignty, and about trusting Him...but it has to be more than just talk.  My precious friend reminded me of that once again during our visit, and it is so, so true. We are called to worship, to obey, to put hands and feet and mind and heart into serving Him in response to His love, mercy, and grace that are constantly at work in us.  

I always have a huge number of Firefox tabs open on my PC...things I want to read or otherwise act on, but haven't quite gotten to yet.  Occasionally during a few moments of down time, I'll begin working through them...reading, saving, pinning, sharing, printing, and so on. 

Today I've been working my way through a week's worth of tabs, and I finally read Tim Challies excellent post, Will I Rejoice in That Day?, from earlier this week.  This is one of those "really, really, really worth clicking through to read" posts. I cried through it, and as I read, I realized that even in this, even in my "save tab now, read later" technological procrastination, God showed His perfect timing.

Because the conversation that started with a question about "Why did you leave?" ended up being about so much more.  The heart of it ended up being about the very questions that Tim Challies asks in the above article:

"Will you love my sovereignty even when you don't see it as good? Or will you trust my sovereignty only when it gives you what you would have chosen anyway?"

My friend's closing comments...that she wouldn't change it, even though it has been agonizing...echoed my own heart.  Although I haven't been faced with martyrdom or watched my family martyred (as Challies describes), we have, as a family, experienced one of our worst nightmares coming true.  I've shared before that I did question God's goodness for a time, and that during that same (mercifully short) time, the thought of God's sovereignty actually made me angry

God's mercy and grace are truly amazing, and He has brought us (me!) far since that time. I know that God is good, and I am thankful beyond words for His sovereignty. I also know I know that in no way am I "all there".  There are many more lessons to be learned, and even this one has to be learned over and over and over again.  It is entirely possible that there is even more intense suffering to come, and given the fact that I still struggle many times on the "good days", there is no doubt that when that suffering comes, I will struggle even more.

This post has been long...longer even than usual for me, and mine are rarely short!  I'll close with this...this which is my heart:

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.  What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ  and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.  I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings,  becoming like him in his death,  and so, somehow, to attain the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect,  but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.  Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:7-14)

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