When They Prayed
FROM THE BISHOP DAVID GRAVES   I chose the theme of our 2023 Annual Conference session, “When They Prayed,” based on Acts 4:31: “And when they had prayed, the place in which they ...
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At church but not in church

February 15, 2021

A couple of years ago, our church completed a wonderful study using Rob Renfroe’s book, “A Way Through the Wilderness. Growing in Faith When Life is Hard.” As we watched his videos and met for discussions, the participants agreed that their wilderness periods have often been so painful they thought they would never get through them in one piece. It never felt good. It always hurt. They cried. They felt broken. Often, their lives didn’t make sense. Through our journey, however, we want to get to the place where we can say, “I believe God will get me through. I don’t understand, but I know He is working.” It’s important that we trust God, not our feelings.

Above the horizon of their pain, they eventually saw the sun filtering through their worst days, offering them a trickle of hope that better days were up ahead. Through the guidance of this book, they learned that God has a purpose for their wildernesses and that all of God’s purposes are for our good and His glory. If our goal is to be like Him, to be intimately acquainted with Him, then our wildernesses, though unwelcome, are always necessary.

Those times in the wilderness have the potential of bringing forth a richer walk with our Lord. Indeed, it is often through our wildernesses that our journey with God is strengthened. We learned that our personal wilderness can come to us as a result of our own decisions, because of some decision or action by another, allowed by God to form our character, or just because of the natural flow of life. As explained in the book, God’s purpose in our lives is not to make us happy but to make us more like Jesus.  

Rob writes, “Expect life to be hard. Expect that you will go through a wilderness – probably several before your life is over.”

Growth is hard. Growth is painful. Transforming into the image of Jesus calls for sacrifice and self-denial. Rob writes that there are no shortcuts to holiness. Your challenges will seem like giants if you focus on your limitations or think about how far you have to go to get out of your wilderness. Instead, turn your eyes toward Jesus and discover that when you have nothing left, you have everything left. Jesus becomes your everything. Our wilderness can become a blessing as we submit in obedience and continue trusting God.

I asked if anyone would like to share a testimony about one of their own wildernesses. A member of our church stood, walked to the microphone and said, “I was in a wilderness for 52 years, from age 16 to age 68. During that time, I did not feel that God loved me. I went to church. I was at church but not in church.”

His words sank down into my soul, into the part of me that grabs a thought and can’t let it go, into that part that sits down and cries over another’s wounds. I felt profoundly sad that this fine man had suffered for so many years. He is now an active member of our church, a lover of Jesus. I wondered how many others could relate to his insightful statement…at church, but not in church.

I believe those words could identify many of our church-goers. How sad it is to think that our pews are filled with those who are sitting around us but not with us, never having opened their hearts to the dynamic change that could be theirs. They are sitting on the peripheral of a beautiful life that they will never know unless they make that choice. That would be like going to a lake, sweating and wanting to jump in, but not knowing how. You would miss out on the joy of the water because you only tiptoed around the shallow edge. Or, when our children run through a sprinkler on a hot day but only stand on the farthest spot that the water touches. Afraid to jump in and over the sprinkler, they never enjoy the full experience that could bring relief on a warm day. At the lake but not in the lake. At the sprinkler but not in the sprinkler. At church, but not in the church.

When our six-week study was completed, I was pleased to hear that several commented that they wanted to loan their book and notes to a friend who needed this teaching.

Opening our hearts to this message, our group could not only be at the book. We were definitely in the book. Maybe you’ve recently been in a wilderness. Hold on. God will meet you at your wilderness and bring you through to victory.

The Rev. B.J. Funk is associate pastor of Central UMC in Fitzgerald. Email her at bjfunk@bellsouth.net.

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