The following is a guest post from Emily T. Wierenga based on the focus of her new memoir Making It Home: Finding My Way to Peace, Identity, and Purpose (Baker, 2015).
The rain is like hundreds of bare feet on the roof of our tent trailer and it’s 8:30 in the morning, the dirt ground pooling outside, the windows crying. The air is thick with storm and mosquitos, and it’s our second day camping with my family in Whiteshell Provincial Park.
I’m nursing our youngest on the couch, in the middle of this wet world, and I’m tempted to complain, but am learning to sing, even as we camp in the rain. My baby’s hands clinging to my fingers, her cheek pressed against my chest. She’s only five months old but one day, she’ll be weaned.
Great is thy faithfulness, my tired voice begins to croon, O God my Father . . .
I’m in training at 35 years old. Beside me on the cushion is the book I’m reading—A Chance to Die, the story of Amy Carmichael’s life recounted by Elisabeth Elliot. In it Carmichael remarks, “I am learning the lesson set to the weaned child. I am learning to do without. . . . Let’s do it, together.”
I too am learning this lesson in this season of motherhood. I’m learning to do without showers or without personal time, without space or without hot coffee. But more than this, as a believer, I’m learning to do without personal rights, without personal vendettas or grudges, without spiritual pride.
And this weaning has led me to become a member of the church, after two decades of running from it.
Where God Banks His Glory
Growing up I saw the bellows of the church, the dark places where saints become sinners and the pastor’s family hides behind the glass walls of their house. I heard sermons and I saw pain. I heard promises and witnessed them broken. I saw firsthand the hypocrisy that’s handed out with billfolds into the offering plate and I turned anorexic to try and protect a heart that knew God loved me but had never felt it. God’s love was as personal as a three-point sermon. And when I turned 18 I ran as far from home as possible, to the other side of the country, trying to find a Father who’d gotten lost in doctrine and church politics.
Now I’m the founder of a non-profit working in one of the poorest places on earth, in a slum in Katwe, Uganda, and we’re partnering with a church that has a dirt floor and no bathroom facilities, a building made from scrap pieces of metal. And those without homes sleep on its floors. The mothers and daughters we partner with, who were once homeless, have found a haven in this place without PowerPoint projectors or pews or electricity. And three times a week they fellowship in this church, their acapella songs reaching the cracks in the ceiling and drifting up to blue Ugandan skies.
I’ve seen what church can be. It can be the poor helping the poor, Jesus serving his own; the lonely opening up their doors to one another, praise and worship in the midst of sorrow. A shelter for the orphan and widow.
And through this hard and beautiful obedience the church makes known the character of God—not only on earth, but in the spiritual realms. According to Ephesians 3:10, God’s intent was that “through the church the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms . . .”
Did you catch that? Through the church the wisdom of God is made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms. That great cloud of witnesses Hebrews talks about? It isn’t just earthly. There is a whole realm of principalities and powers in the spiritual realm who are watching us, who are being witnessed to by our testimony. By the humility and servanthood of the church. “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. . . . There is one body and one Spirit . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Eph. 4:3, 5–6). God is banking his reputation on us. He’s entrusting us with fulfilling his story through the church so that everyone in heaven and on earth might know he is Lord.
Our enemy isn’t the church. Our enemy is the prince of darkness.
“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood,” the apostle writes, “but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Eph. 6:12)
I grew up seeing the underbelly of the institution, yes, but I also saw the goodness of God. I saw meals shared in church basements, I saw offerings raised for families who’d lost everything, I heard sermons that taught me truth, and I joined in songs of holy praise.
And I longed for even more. I longed for the fullness of what the church could be. I longed for the glorious inner working of the Spirit. For the breaking of bread and the selling of possessions and the sharing of everything we had with one another. But to change the church, we must first join it.
Serving People Versus God
This past spring my husband and I took a membership class at our local Alliance Church.
As we stood in front of the congregation to declare our membership, I looked out and saw my children sitting there, watching their mommy and daddy. And I was reminded of why we needed to do this.
When we become members of a local church, we’re not just becoming members of an institution. We’re becoming members of a family. We’re choosing spiritual grandfathers and grandmothers and aunties and uncles for our children. We’re planning a legacy.
And we need to do so carefully. As I sat in a classroom and underwent an interview with our pastor—a young man with a passionate heart—I said, “Can I just share something? This is my first time becoming a member of a church. And I’m a bit nervous. I’m nervous because I’ve seen pastors like yourself who are so determined to serve Jesus, and so on fire, but as time goes on, they begin to serve people instead. They begin to cater to the community instead of living by the hard truths of the gospel. They get so concerned about numbers that they stop caring about the few, and they sell out.”
He was very good about it. He scribbled down my worries and thanked me for sharing them. And I realized then that I’d done the same thing. Instead of believing God was big enough to change the church, I’d served my own fears. I’d idolized my own expectations and rights and stopped believing God could be found in the midst of a motley crew of sinners. I’d judged mercilessly instead of trusting my Savior to redeem. I’d served people (myself) instead of my Maker.
This Little Light of Mine
The rain had finally stopped and it was night; the stars like thousands of ellipses leading to the Milky Way. I found my way through the dark to my parents’ trailer to say goodnight.
My pastor-father was tucking in my mom as he’d been doing for the past 12 years since she first contracted brain cancer. He’s been her main caregiver, tirelessly serving her.
“Goodnight,” I said through the crack in their door. I saw a candle, lit, burning bright on their counter.
“Oh, goodnight, Emily,” said Dad, and Mom whispered it too.
“And Emily?” said my dad.
“Please be praying for Wilma; she just suffered a stroke. And please pray for Sandra as she’s recovering from surgery.” I smiled, there in the dark, watching the candle flicker. The servant life of a pastor who cares for his flock. “Yes, Dad, I will pray.”
This is the legacy I’m joining. Not one of backstabbing or hypocrisy, but of a people learning to love one another. An imperfect people, saved by a perfect God who entrusts his story and reputation to us.
As Jesus said to Simon Peter, upon whom the church is built, “I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me . . . Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:29–32).
May we strengthen one another, friends, in this short life, as we testify to the heavenlies of a God who went without everything so we might know him. So we might love others. So we might one day make it home.