Jake was given seventeen days of leave before deployment. We’d spent six days at my family’s house, and then six days with the proper Brocks, all in Central NY. The final five days we spent in Oak Island, NC, in a rented beach house only an eighth of a mile from the Atlantic Ocean.
The time in New York was a test for me, but a really relaxing one, if that makes any sense. Basically, God was challenging me to love. That sounds weird, but what I mean is that He was challenging me to not take control, to not try to challenge or fix people, but to just serve, love, and submit to them as to Christ…And it felt really good. There were a few difficult times of doing so, like when my little brother Jimmy fought with Mom over something, and I wanted to jump in and mediate and instruct, and was led to instead let Mom be the mom. But most of the time, God brought about deliberate and challenging conversations without my even trying…imagine that. God also answered a prayer I had prayed while at my family’s house, for God to help me to not think poorly of someone else just because they were different than I, or because they don’t socially fit in to the mold of the world. And then a conversation on the front porch of the proper Brock house with Aunt Lori and Uncle Doug broke me down, and made me realize that half of my problem lately is that I have not yet really been vulnerable with the people around whom I live my new life.
This past Sunday was our final day of leave. We cleaned up the beach house, packed, and checked out. And then we headed down the road for church.
So, church this Sunday was different for me and Jake. When we’d initially driven through Oak Island, we saw a white church labeled as “Evangelical Presbyterian,” and it piqued our curiosity, though I don’t know why. The idea of denominations has been the thing that’s burdened and confused me most lately about the Church, and the thing that’s caused the most “disturbance in the force” of my mind concerning unity. Why are there denominations? Are they necessary? Do they represent disunity? Or is it something else? If we’re all following Christ, then is it possible for us to be ultimately united by the Gospel and not pay attention to all of the other differences, but still have denominations?
My conclusions are slowly moving in the direction of the last statement…but I have not yet arrived.
Anyway, Jake and I wanted to see what this was like. The only experience I have of the Presbyterian denomination is when I attended a few services and even debates held at Tim Keller’s church, Redeemer, located in Manhattan, New York City. The service at Redeemer was typically more liturgical than I was used to, but not unbiblical. Edward, one of the people with whom I attended, mentioned that the main doctrinal issue with the Presbyterian denomination was their belief in the baptism of infants and the practicing of “reformed faith.”
Jake and I parked in a shaded area away from the main lot, so that our black car wouldn’t fry in the sun while we were inside. We were early, and so we sat there for a few minutes in silence. I already felt a spirit of judgment, criticism, and pride creeping into my heart. Regardless of the denomination and their biblical stance, there’s no place in God’s Word that says He accepts or caters to those attitudes. He is in fact opposed to the proud (James 4:6).
I realized then that I had not yet prayed for the service I was about to attend. A couple of months ago, I was convicted on not praying for the service and instead judging the things I believed to be wrong with it. Since then, I’ve been praying for the service each Sunday before the service actually happened, whether it’s at All American Chapel, First Baptist Church of New Berlin, or even this Evangelical Presbyterian service. So I started praying aloud.
Immediately the desire to judge and criticize was gone, and half of the things I was thinking about that caused me to feel judgmental evaporated. I could finally focus. I should be pursuing unity with all eagerness (Ephesians 4:1-3). Though this doesn’t mean I turn a blind eye to false doctrine, it does mean that I learn to distinguish between things that are actually wrong and things that are merely matters of conviction, preference, or interpretation.
Jake and I walked between the tall white pillars outside the church and into the red-carpeted foyer, the red stretching further into the wide and spacious sanctuary. The walls were all white, like the exterior, and at the front of the sanctuary, behind the elevated pulpit, was a choir loft. On either side of the choir loft was an organ (to the left) and a grand piano (to the right). The sanctuary was small, about the size of and with a layout similar to that of my hometown church.
When I saw the organ, I swallowed hard. Out of all of the instruments created by the hands of man, reflective of the genius and creativity of their Maker, the organ is my least favorite…to me it’s overwhelming, overbearing, and painful to listen to. Thankfully, this distaste for the poor instrument has never prevented me from truly worshiping God, since it is, after all, merely an instrument, and it is, after all, merely my preference.
We sat in a pew about four rows from the front, among a few elderly couples. We would quickly see the sanctuary fill up with the same sort of people, all of whom would be dressed in pastels, mostly browns, purples, whites, and yellows. We soon learned that the pastor’s name was Walter Taylor, the pianist/organist’s name was “Squeaky,” and the sermon was on Romans 6:15-23.
The hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy” was accompanied by the organ, and then we all recited the Lord’s Prayer. This was followed by a recitation of what this congregation called “Confession of Sin,” and is basically exactly what it sounds like. The confession was printed in the church bulletin.
The first part of it cut me to the core as I spoke the words, simultaneously praying through their meaning and what they mean to the people around me, and if all of what we’re doing was doctrinal, biblical, right, and good.
“O Lord our God,” it began, “we remember our sins before you; we cast ourselves upon your compassion. Be merciful to us sinners. We have not loved you, our Father, with all our heart; we have been unfaithful to our Lord Jesus Christ, our Shepherd and Head; we have grieved the Holy Spirit, the guarantee of our inheritance. We have not been pure and holy; we have not been faithful and true; we have been entangled in the world and overcome of evil.”
Woah…ouch…I mean, yeah, this is true…O Lord, yeah…”We have not loved you…we have been unfaithful….we have not been faithful and true…” Granted, my state before God is secure, and my adoption into His family for eternity has not changed and never will, but I still sin, and there is no room for me to defend myself against these confessions. At some point, during some time, I have not loved God with all of my heart, soul, mind, and strength.
Thankfully, the second part of this “Confession of Sin” brought my attention back to my complete redemption, forgiveness, and guaranteed place in the affections of my Father.
The line in the second half that took me out of the moment of confession, however, was a line that echoed David’s cry to God when he’d sinned with Bathsheba, “take not your Holy Spirit from us,” (Psalm 51:11). While I know I’ve had times of darkness when, out of ignorance, I’ve begged God for this same thing, God does not take His Spirit from people any longer. The Spirit is the guarantee of our inheritance (Ephesians 1:14), or, to put it in Jess Snyder terms, the Spirit is God’s engagement ring, given to us as a promise of marriage. God will not take His Holy Spirit from the one He’s now saved and claimed for the rest of eternity.
I don’t know if the intent of this cry to God was meant to suggest that this body believed the Holy Spirit, our Engagement Ring, could be taken away from us because of sin. It could have been written in there for the exact reason I might ignorantly and emotionally and fearfully pray for the same thing. Or, maybe they do believe this, which could, maybe, kinda sorta be a big problem.
I won’t go deeply into the rest of the service, but (excuse me while I start going deeply into the rest of the service) I will say that the sermon was challenging, and God used it in more ways than one to clear up a lot of confusion that I hadn’t recognized as confusion. Like, the Westminster Shorter Catechism that reads “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” As I’ve come across this again and again, I’ve seen it as somehow incomplete. During this sermon, since it came up as Pastor Taylor spoke on “You’re Gonna Have to Serve Somebody,” I think I concluded my thoughts on it: I’d only been looking at the statement through a filter of how it could be abused to be stagnant and not actually pursue glorifying God at all. If I were to use it as an excuse to be stagnant (i.e., not pursue obedience, or follow God, etc. and just do what I wanted to), then I don’t really understand what it means to glorify God in the first place. But if everything I do and think and say and feel is filtered through “does this glorify God? Does this encourage me to enjoy and better understand Him?” then I have the entirety of Scripture summarized in a single sentence. God does call me to love Him will all my heart, soul, and mind (Matthew 22:37-38). This calls on my internal self to be so in line with and sold out to God that I am loving nothing else, and so therefore my actions follow suit. I cannot glorify God without enjoying (loving) Him, and I cannot love (enjoy) God without glorifying Him.
….Hopefully all of that makes some kind of sense. It felt like a big deal to me 😛
After church, Jake and I walked around Southport for the afternoon, going into different shops and gazing through store fronts. The sun brightened as the afternoon came to replace the morning, and a spring breeze broke the heat every now and then. We bought a porcelain mug with a blue crab painted on the front from a store called “Duck, Duck, Goose,” and I found myself thanking Jacob for loving me.
We eventually stopped at a bistro called Deborah’s Place. Stepping through the door, we were met by a cool darkened room with a bar to the right and a glass-tabled seating area to the left. Our hostess had long beach-blond hair with the salt water waves to boot, draped over a white peasant blouse and black slacks. We were seated in the back of the restaurant, near the kitchen. Each of the tables had a piece of a world map squared off and pressed between the table surface on the bottom and a glass square on the top. Our piece of map was Afghanistan.
Our waiter came up to us, and I felt immediately thrown into battle mode. Now, this isn’t to say that I felt the need to fight the waiter, or really to fight anyone except the enemy. Our waiter’s name was Cameron, and he spoke in a masculine-toned voice, but as if he were a woman. He used mannerisms and language that echoed of Southern hospitality, though typically from southern belles. Yes, our waiter was transgender, and trying very hard to interact with us as if he were a woman.
So, when I said “battle mode,” the suggestion was not that this person was my enemy, or that I must now fight the sin in him. For me, it was more a realization that God loves this man, and He desires that his identity be found in Him, and not in his gender…But the temptation was to be so appalled by the sin that the sinner was virtually invisible, and therefore unlovable. And the enemy came in immediately to throw hate at this person loved and meant to be purchased by the blood of the Son. And as the hatred of sin and the sin of pride met in my heart, I struggled a lot.
I remember back in Brooklyn, when Kat, Bree, and I were consistently meeting up with the Navigator ministry over at NYU, that this topic of LGBT came up a lot, specifically the question of how we love them without compromising the truth. Where is the line between not causing unnecessary offense and accepting/condoning practices that God doesn’t agree with? Do we call them by their pronouns/desired gender names, or do we call them by the names on their birth certificates and by their actual gender? And how do we help heal the injuries inflicted by other Christians, saying that God hates them and will never accept or love them because of this choice?
Jake and I interacted with Cameron out of love, smiled and treated him as if he were any other person. God worked out the kinks in my heart and overcame the lies. The food was delicious, and we were served very well. We talked more about the sermon, about Jesus, about deployment. We made sure to tip well, as we always try to do (We think it’s a bad testimony to have conversations about Jesus in restaurants and then tip poorly). And then we left.
We ended our time at a coffee shop called Port City Java, where we read Deuteronomy together, and I prayed over the thoughts God brought into my heart from the sermon, from the time at Deborah’s Place, and from all the things He’s pulling at, moving, and bringing about.
Leave is over now, and there’s only about a week and a half before Jake deploys for nine months…Yes, I am a mess, and I’m feeling very pathetic. But this is not without hope, without excitement of all that God is going to do through us, in us, and around us, as we try—pathetically and quite clumsily—to glorify Him and enjoy Him forever.
“The Lord is king forever and ever; the nations perish from his land. O Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted, you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed, so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more.” (Psalm 10:16-18)