Our youngest daughter, Maggie, is about to turn two years old. We celebrated on the weekend with a grilled cheese party (what is the point of serving food at a party the guest of honour doesn’t like? so grilled cheese for all!). It took us this long to figure out how to have a tantrum-free birthday party so never let it be said that we don’t learn – we believe in low-key slow birthday parties for toddlers.  Her favourite present was a new ladybug rain coat with matching rubber boots from my parents: she hasn’t taken them off in three days.

Maggie is currently obsessed with bubbles in the kitchen sink, content to stand on the kitchen chair (with an adult or sibling nearby, of course) to paddle in the dish soap by the hour. We bought her a bottle of bubble bath for her birthday and when I plopped her into the tub, filled with bubbles, she hollered – “BUBBL-SH! BUBBL-SH!” with her adorable lisp and we all laughed like it was Christmas morning.

She was our unexpected gift, our one-last-baby-to-make-a-fool-of-ourselves-over baby. My sister and I had all of our babies in a short period of time: we were swimming in babies and toddlers and preschoolers around here for many a year. Then they began to grow up and last of all, along came Maggie bringing up the rear of our train. We are all enjoying her so much: her toddlerness is a treasure to us. Her cousins are enraptured, her siblings think she does no wrong, her dad is in big trouble because she has him wrapped around her baby finger.

Basically all of the tropes about the baby-of-the-family are going to be legit in this house. We aren’t even sorry.

***

We are celebrating her and it’s a happy time, but it has been, well, as we say a bit of a month for us.

The saga began while I was in Michigan preaching and ministering, our eldest daughter had an emergency appendectomy. This is the second time around for us: last October, I was out of town when our son had the exact same procedure.

When Brian called me on that Sunday right after I preached my last sermon, he said, “You’ll never guess where we are right now.”

And I said, “Please tell me you are not at the emergency room again.”

“Oh, no, we’re not.”

“Whew.”

“We’re in the pediatric wing being prepped for surgery.”

OMG.

That was a long day trying to get home, knowing she was in surgery and being so far away. But when I made it to her, she was in the exact same bed her brother had been in just four months before, smiling and waiting for me. She is recovering well and all was under control here. Crisis handled.

***

Less than a week later, I was in a bad car accident. I was out at the SheLoves She Rises Gathering in Chilliwack for the day. I had just finished preaching and everyone was breaking into small groups so I decided to do what introverts at conferences always do: sneak out and go for a drive alone for a coffee. I hopped into our minivan and drove to a Tim Horton’s and then because the day was so beautiful and the mountains were out, I decided to go for a little drive before heading back.

That’s when another car pulled an illegal u-turn in front of me while I was travelling 70 km/hr and I slammed into his car head-on.

These things happen so fast, don’t they? I remember pulling hard on the wheel to try to avoid him, knowing it was useless, knowing that we were going to crash and crash badly. It’s terrifying to know it is happening and be unable to stop it. I remember the only thought I had in my brain: “this is how I’m going to die.” There is the noise of the crashing: the squealing breaks, the impact, the airbags exploding, twisting metal. When I raised my head after impact, I couldn’t believe I was conscious, I couldn’t believe I was alive. I burst into tears.

The other driver was clamouring out of his vehicle along with a teenage daughter, unhurt. Miracle. How did he survive that? I have no idea. But he did. (And he took full ownership of the accident and was deeply apologetic at the scene.) The first person on-site was an off-duty firefighter who kept me still and kept me calm while I was going into shock.

Only five minutes before this moment, I had my coffee in my hand, enjoying a beautiful day with gladness in my heart, and now I was sobbing on the side of the road, covered in that coffee, smelling gas and smoke and metal, listening to the sirens headed our way.

So that was the start of a long weekend: long hours in the hospital strapped to a metal board and clamped into a neck brace just in case of spinal fractures or injuries. Thankfully everything came back okay – nothing broken, only soft tissue damage. I had a bit of bruising in my brain but those began to heal almost immediately instead of becoming hemorrhages. Concussion was mild. I jammed my hip and my leg pretty badly along with my back, there was a lot of bruising, the seat belt cut my neck, that sort of thing. We’ve reaggravated my summer back injury rather well. But overall, we went home from the hospital feeling incredibly fortunate. It should have been so much worse. It should have been so much worse. I don’t know why it wasn’t but I’m grateful, deeply grateful.

Our minivan was written off, of course, so we’re also dealing with replacing that through insurance. Good times. I’ve been dealing with a slow physical recovery as well. Some days are better than others.

On the Sunday after the accident, Brian was preaching and so he left me at home with my painkillers and went to church. He had barely walked into the room before three people separately came over to him to tell him that they had been woken up in the night during that week to pray for our family’s protection.

While we had been sleeping unaware in the days before, our church family was interceding on our behalf. We are both a bit undone by that. People have brought us meals and sent flowers. Friends have texted and called and prayed for us. Over and over over again, these weeks included, our church has seen a need in us and decided to step up.

***

I ran into a friend of mine at a toy store a week after the accident. I was there to pick up a birthday present for Maggie’s second birthday. We chatted about the accident of course and I found myself admitting to her, “It’s a weird feeling to be on this side of it: I’m usually the one who brings the meals to other people. I’m not the one receiving the meals.” 

For a lot of years, I have thought of the Church in terms of what I had to give, what I had to offer, how I could serve or be a blessing or encourage or build up or grow.

I never really thought about what the Church had to teach me, to offer me, to give to me. It was a one-sided relationship, I guess. I thought of myself as a teacher, not as a student; as a giver, not a receiver.

It is a humbling thing to be the Receiver in the relationship for a while now. Brian and I are both recovering from an evangelical hero complex: we’re used to being the Giver, not the Receiver. We’re the ones who minister, not the ones who need ministry. We’re the ones who pray, not the ones reaching out for prayer. We’re the ones who encourage, not the ones who need to be encouraged. We’re the ones who bring the meal, not the opening the front door to homemade meals from other women’s kitchens. We’re the ones who serve, not the ones being served. We’re the ones speaking a good word to the down-hearted, not the ones begging to be noticed.

But here we are, hands out.

***

We have found ourselves to be Receivers this past year in particular. And it’s been a hard blessing. 

We are experiencing God most overwhelmingly these days through God’s people. We are receiving their wisdom, their insight, their advice, their prayers, their meals, their words, their friendship, as the good gifts they are.

Over and over, we find ourselves saying, “thank you.”

***

Brian has mentioned this reversal often over the past year: he feels like he is a marked man. Every time we go to church, someone is waiting for him to encourage him, to speak a word of blessing to him, to pray for him, to build him up, to prophesy over him.

And I can say the same for myself.

Being loved well reorients us.

***

In my line of work, I witness our tendency to disengage from our local churches. After all, I go to churches and church conferences more than anyone ever should in a lifetime. Every day I hang out with a lot of Christians. I talk about Jesus all the time. I even teach other people how to follow Jesus. I sing a lot of worship songs. I write books that are read by people who want to follow Jesus. I do a lot of giving, a lot of pouring out, a lot of ministering. It’s tempting to think that one doesn’t “need” church anymore or that this “counts” as church.

People who find themselves in a position of leadership find it tempting to opt out of belonging to the very thing we’re building up – the Church, the people of God. 

But as I travel and speak and minister in the larger Church context, I find myself needing our local church more and more. I need a place where I’m not always expected to be “the minister” or the leader or the giver: I need to be in the posture of student, on my knees among the ones who know Resurrection. It is just as important to my soul that I am also alongside the people of God instead of only “standing in front.”

So I’ve become devoted to this regular ordinary discipline of showing up with people who know us and aren’t dazzled by us in the least, people who know our failings and love us anyway. I know that I have hurt people in this church, that I have been inadequate and disappointing, that I have let them down. And they have forgiven me. I also know that I have been hurt by people in this church, that I have found things inadequate and disappointing, that I have felt let down and learned how to forgive and how to reconcile and how to carry on together.

***

There is a difference between “going to church” as if it were an event or a destination or a task to check off and belonging to a particular and peculiar church family.

We belong somewhere and that is making a difference in our life. As I said on Facebook shortly after my accident, that one of the most important and doggedly hopeful things we have ever done as a family is to intentionally plant ourselves into a church and to simply and steadily stay put.  

I hope that we are still Givers in the Body of Christ. After all, there is a difference between being someone who learns how to receive and someone who becomes a Taker, I know that, too. I hope that I never become “a taker” but I’m learning how holy it is to be a Receiver.

***

There are so many ways to experience God; so many ways to become fluent in the language goodness and faithfulness of God. But after the past few weeks, I want to testify to this rather old-fashioned phrase: going to church; the work of simply walking through life alongside of people who love Jesus, week in and week out, in times of feast and famine, in our valleys and our mountaintops, and allowing ourselves to be changed by them.

I have found this miracle of belonging both inside and outside of traditional ideas of church: I don’t think we need a particular tax status to qualify as the Body of Christ, not at all. In fact, sometimes we have to leave old places or set out into new spaces in order to find the place where we belong. I’ve also learned that the place where we belong isn’t always the place where we agree with one another all the time.

Binding ourselves to one another in a daily giving to and receiving from other people is like an invitation to participate personally in Love, to embody something holy about belonging, to dance within the community of God, all of us shining like starlight in this tired world.  There isn’t a line between the sacred and secular in our lives: everything we do tips our hand to testify what we really believe about our lives. We can talk all we want about belonging but until we belong somewhere it is only talk.

At Maggie’s birthday party, my husband and my mother made the grilled cheese sandwiches while I recovered in the chair, unable to do much more than visit. I still have leftovers in the fridge from the meal our friends cooked for us. The candle burning beside me as I write these words was dropped off by a friend who thought I needed something pretty to cheer me up this week. I have messages on my phone from friends who want to talk everything from theology to potty training.

You see, I am always walking on a floor built of the prayers from the ordinary saints whenever I show up in your town to preach or to minister or when I write the words that go to your own hands to cooperate with what God is already doing in you. It’s always an honour to see the wider Church, to participate in and witness the big gorgeous mess of us. In fact, this work that I do restores my faith in the ways God is moving and renewing the regular people of God in churches and communities all over the world. God is up to something. I have a lot of hope for us as a church at this time and this place because I have seen us at work now.

And at the end of the day, I come home to where I belong.

 

P.S. I wrote quite a bit about my journey with, out of, and back into the Church in my book, Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith. It’s on sale right now.

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  • Debbie Fuller

    I really appreciate your words as they give voice to our experience of a number of years ago when we, too, were in a terrible wreck. We got a lot of practice at being receivers instead of givers and learned so much thru the experiences. My favorite line is “Being loved well reorients us.” It truly does.

  • Annalisa

    “Walking on a floor built of the prayers from the ordinary saints . . . when I write the words that go to your own hands to cooperate with what God is already doing in you.” Every post you write, but especially this, Sarah.

    Needed this right now.

    Living off of every Word that proceeds from Him, we break Christ’s body, each other, and are fed. Broken for you, broken for me, to feed the hungry. Hurting as a friend has drifted, longing to belong, and finding — I always will. This reminds me–Jesus is here–strange as that is.

  • Kelly D.

    Yes. Just, so much yes. You are echoing my heart. “Writing the words to cooperate with what God is already doing in me.”. 🙂
    My husband is a worship pastor and creative director. Like you, our world is about ministering and giving. Last fall we lost our third child, our only son, at 20 weeks gestation. In the midst of this personal crisis, we became the receiver. The church became to us what makes it so beautiful as His bride. So much grace, so much love, so many prayers and calls and thoughtful gestures. It’s a bit disorienting, yet refreshing. Healing. Like a blanket for our hurting hearts.
    Thanks for beautifully writing about what we are also experiencing. God is truly up to something. Amen.

    • I am so sorry for your loss, Kelly and so grateful that you’ve been well loved in this grief. xo

  • JennaDeWitt

    So beautiful. <333 Question though for you and anyone here who might know: Once you've committed to a church, how many years does it take before you "belong" like this? In my previous church, it took a few, but they were really extraordinary people who were known for their big welcome and hospitality, like no other church in our city. Just wondering what's "normal" now that I've moved to a new city and found a new church.

    • I have no idea what’s normal but I know it took more years than I expected and we moved around a bit and found spots of community quickly and others have evolved and others have fallen away – we’ve been in our current community for about six years now if that helps.

      • JennaDeWitt

        Thanks! It does. <333

  • What if the church won’t let you be a giver or a receiver? What if they don’t allow you to belong? I am so grateful that others have true church family, but I never have, despite my best efforts.

    • I’m sorry to hear that, Tessa – you’re not alone. I felt that way for a lot of years and I am deeply empathetic.

  • Tracy Nelson

    so, so, so, soooo glad you are better … we at She Loves were feeling very protective of and worried about you – we prayed so much – you are one of us sisters, now, and we love you. and – sooo very happy you have a fantastic church family to care for you. <3

  • Brittaney B

    I’ve always heard it’s more blessed to give than to receive as if to receive is not also to be blessed. God has had me in a position of being a receiver in both big and small things for several years now and I can tell you it is the most humbling, Holy work I’ve ever experienced. It’s the biggest pride killer and I’ve learned that no matter whose hand I receive from it is all God. Sometimes it is easier to receive from a stranger than from a loved one. Despite how hard this lesson has been I am grateful for it because I believe it will make me a more compassionate, thoughtful and understanding giver when it becomes my turn again.

  • The best part is I’ve heard you speak often enough that I hear your accented words as I read. Been, sorry… oh, and I’m with you on every word of this!!

  • massies6@yahoo.com massie

    Love the thoughts. As a military family it’s impossible for us “to intentionally plant ourselves into a church and to simply and steadily stay put. ” … Our community is different but it is still beautiful. Sometimes I would like to be in one spot and able to do as you say but then I would miss the community I’m in as well.

    • I love how you put that – so many ways to be faithful to where God has us. Bless you in your community of military families – so rich.

  • beautiful and yes, there is such a difference when you build a community within church and stick with it long after you realize it’s imperfect because hey, aren’t we all? Thanks for sharing.

  • Amy Hunt

    hi Sarah. 🙂 this is really touching me deeply today . . . you’re really partnering with God and it’s a beautiful thing to see how purposeful your words are for me. {hugs}, sweet lady.

  • emmeline

    The way you talk about Maggie reminds me of Rilla from the later Anne books 🙂