The Churches that Formed Me
The first time I remember standing at the front of this church, I was about 5 years old. They asked me to sing the Sunday school theme song, “I am Jesus’ little Lamb.” It was during the announcement time, and somebody thought that a little kid singing alone in front of church would be a cute way to recruit new teachers for the children’s classrooms. The words of the song I can still remember more that 3 decades later. I also remember the terror of being in front of everyone I knew, how the song that I knew by heart barely came out when the pressure was on. I remember my mother trying to comfort me between services, and I remember my stubbornness as I refused to sing the second time I was asked.
Today was a bit different. I had flown across the world to share about the work and progress being done in Malawi. The room was filled with those saints who had been my Sunday school teachers when I was younger. These days, they didn’t remember the rough years and the trouble I caused them. I was professional and spoke enthusiastically. I was happy to be here, and knew most of these church members just as they had known me my whole life. I bet nobody knew that I was still nervous to get up and speak. My sister, intuitive and empathetic, seemed to know. She took me aside and prayed for me before our time to talk. I was thankful for that, it calmed my nerves and my soul. And today my husband stood beside me. I knew that I just had to say a first introduction greeting, and he would do the rest.
As I addressed the group, I couldn’t hide the depth of my emotions. These people were with me when I prayed to be a Christian after a puppet show down the hall. They had witnessed my baptism and had prayed for me as I went to Mexico during the summers. They spoke into my life, connecting me with opportunities for short-term missions, writing recommendations for me to get into college, and convincing me to be a doctor instead of a nurse. I don’t know how well I was able to communicate my thanks, I tried not to think about it as a performance. But I think I was able to get my heart across – a thank-you to the people who had raised me, an acknowledgement that I was formed into the person that I was because of this church. As we talked about the work in Africa, I wanted them to know that this was also their work. Not only because they helped me with the logistics and prayed for me now, but because they had given their time to teach me the Bible, because they had given their attention to help me grow well. If it takes a village to raise a child, this was the community responsible for my entire spiritual formation.
I was happy to be there, back at this church which formed me. I still don’t like getting in front of everyone and speaking, but this time I didn’t rush home refusing to show my face at the next service. And in the back of my mind, I wondered if the things I talked about were just as much a recruitment for investment in children’s ministries than that day thirty years ago when I stood up and tried to sing a song.
A week later, I’m standing in front of another church, the last church Greg and I attended as I finished residency and before we left for Africa. This church helped Greg affirm his calling to ministry, and prayed us through some of our more stressful times, some of our more broken moments. We spoke at this church three years ago, so today is an update on the work God is doing, a celebration of how God has answered the church’s prayers for us in the last year. My friend stands beside me translating, and I speak in short, easy sentences. Today the English and Spanish services are combined, and I loved singing in both languages and taking communion together.
After the service, as we sit down to a potluck, I am overwhelmed by the encouragement and care of this congregation as well. People have attended this church for decades, but I have known them just a fraction of that time. I may not know all the stories or families at this church, and sometimes I even forget which names go with the faces I remember. But the love and care we feel is powerful. By the end of lunchtime, I feel so full, so encouraged. What a blessing it is to be back with these people who equipped us to go out and who welcome us home. To feel at home in these churches that formed us into who we are and helped us reach our ministry fits in such fulfilling ways.