The midnight phone call startled us awake. Close friends had gone to the hospital for an emergency C-section after several days of labor. Their baby had been delivered, a healthy—and quite large—baby boy. Soon after the birth, Ruth had developed a complication. The doctors had not yet diagnosed it precisely, but it could be serious. Please pray, said the voice on the other end of the line. We hung up the phone and prayed. This would be the first of many times of prayer in the next week, though we didn’t know that as we drifted back to sleep, a word of protection on our lips.
The next morning, we learned more, and the news was not good. Ruth had developed a rare and extremely dangerous condition called D.I.C. which attacks the bloodstream, and by extension, usually several vital organs including the heart and brain. Only 10 percent of its victims survive, most dying within the first few hours. Of those who do survive, most are left with brain damage.
I rushed into the ICU as soon as I could get to the hospital, finding my friend Del drifting down the hallway, a look of terror and disbelief on his face. He almost didn’t notice me there. I immediately empathized. With my wife due in six weeks, I could feel the fear he was experiencing as he had to grapple with the very distinct possibility—no, probability—that his happy life had ended, and he would now be raising small children alone. He was trying to prepare for what seemed like the inevitable. Walking into the waiting room, I was greeted soberly by a host of familiar faces. Members of their home Bible study, friends from the worship team, some of the church staff.
Those first few days were a blur of long hours waiting together, people coming and going, pleading with God over each risky surgery, holding overnight vigils, trying to get a bit of sleep.
I could take this story many directions. I could tell you about God’s sustaining power. How He brought her through four surgeries in four days. How the nurses later told her that a retinal scan taken early on indicated brain death—then she woke up. I could try to answer the mystery of prayer: Did God rescue her? Did he hear our pleading and intervene? Would she have recovered if nobody had prayed? I could tell you about the amazing strength of a woman fighting to survive or the strength of her husband, surrendering his will and entrusting his wife’s life into the hands of his loving Father. I could tell you about how Ruth has beaten staggering odds and is recovering rapidly. Each of the threads that weave this story is rich with meaning. But what I want to share with you today has to do with us, with an eternal truth: We are made to live in community. Therein lies the beauty of the family of God.
Throughout this harrowing experience, Ruth and Del experienced the love of Jesus through their church family. People were at the hospital day and night for a whole week and continued to visit and pray in the chapel for another week until they were able to leave. And when they got home, this care continued. It continues now, and it will continue for as long as it takes as we pool money to cover bills, bring meals, drive her to doctors appointments, care for their kids, clean their house, etc. I am so proud of my congregation—not because I think we are especially unique; I would hope that every church would provide this sort of care to their members. I am proud of the brothers and sisters in my church because the love they are expressing is a vivid witness of the Church in its full expression: truly the Body of Christ. One friend told me that if this had happened to her sister, her husband would be sitting in an empty waiting room, for they have chosen to live in independence and isolation from others.
Who is there for you if things go horribly wrong? Who are you there for in their hour of need?
All of this has brought to mind those within my congregation who have chosen to not be known, to remain on the fringes. Others, we have simply ignored. They’ve slipped through the cracks. As church leaders, we must do better at welcoming each person, at providing opportunities for connectedness, at reaching out. Even so, some people fear intimacy. I believe this is a fundamental need of each person, woven into our DNA. Each of us deeply desires to be known by others, even those of us who fear it. Perhaps we are afraid that if we allow ourselves to be truly known, we will be rejected.
Perhaps this is your dilemma. Yet, I plead with you—as I pled with God for Ruth’s life—be genuinely known by God’s people. In this is true love and acceptance, for God is love. It is no mystery why Ruth and Del had a stream of friends and family at their side in their desperate time. They have spent years cultivating and broadening their circle of intimacy. They are known and loved by many because they have opened themselves to the risk of being known and because they have been there for others.
It is fashionable for us to critique the Church. We reject its traditions or lack of traditions, its liturgy or lack of liturgy, its music, its décor … Pick your target—targets are easy to find. We remain at arm’s length, thinking intimacy with other believers unnecessary to our personal walk of faith. It may be difficult to convince a 20 year old that she will face crisis in her life. None of us know when the crisis will come. I was terrified when it came to a close friend and young mother. The plain truth is that if we wait until the crisis comes, it is too late—that hospital waiting room will be empty.
Despite the Church’s many imperfections—after all, it is comprised of people like me and you—there truly is nothing sweeter than the family of God walking together through life’s joys and tragedies. My prayer is that each of you will pursue intimacy at all costs, with all of its frustrations and fears. The Church is one of God’s sweetest gifts for His children.
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