by Kathy Holliday | 7-minute read
Sunday after Sunday, my dad and I sat in the last row of the church balcony, under the clock. As the organ swelled, we stood to sing hymns from a well-worn maroon hymnal. We always shared, and I remember my dad’s thumb, always on the lower righthand corner of the page.
As a young schoolgirl standing next to my dad, it didn’t occur to me to wonder why we always kept that weekly appointment. It was part of our weekly family rhythm. Years slipped by and eventually I started to question: Why do we keep coming? The hymns never change. What we hear never changes. What’s the point?
Fast-forward four decades or so. Here I sit in my living room with, most likely, three-quarters of my life behind me. I’m participating in an online worship service which streams into our computer by means of cyber-technology that most of us don’t begin to understand. Necessitated by the global pandemic, online church at first felt surreal. But I don’t feel like a weirdo sitting here with my husband and daughters, eyes glued to the screen. In fact, I wouldn’t miss it.
Nothing to see here
When I heard that the current First Free sermon series is titled, “Love Walked Among Us,” that got me thinking. The “Love” is God (1 John 4: 8) and, if I hadn’t known this before, I certainly got it when studying the Westminster Confession in eighth grade confirmation class. Nothing new here, I thought.
As my junior high years gave way to high school, our family’s church habit didn’t vary, but my attitude did. I got annoyed. I had heard it all before. There was nothing new, and life was getting harder. I began to resent Sunday morning church, wishing we could just move on to brunch at JoJo’s Restaurant.
Having been a Sunday School “lifer,” I assumed I knew all there was to glean. Through sheer repetition I had memorized many of the church responsive readings. Why did we need to “respond” to them, anyway? Everybody read out of the exact same book! The rhythm and cadence never varied, and it seemed pointless to try to wrest any “new” meaning from the words.
As high school drew to a close, I concluded that, while the cast of pastors occasionally changed, none of them had new material. I could skip through the Doxology without missing a syllable or allowing a phrase of this ancient creed to permeate my mind. I “got” that Jesus had been a real man who had walked in dusty desert towns way back when — but, so what?
And yet, I suspected there had to be more. A few years earlier, I had been born again when I responded to a Campus Crusade gospel presentation in Sunday School. A vivacious coed, animated and persuasive, invited us to give our lives to Jesus. After listening to her, who wouldn’t want Jesus? So there, in the musty smelling assembly area of my home church, with “every head bowed and every eye closed,” I raised my hand and asked him to come into my life.
The next week, I was one of a handful who received a letter addressed specially to me. In it, the teacher reinforced the gospel message. I still have that well-worn letter in my Bible; it’s part of my spiritual biography, but it was years before I understood that I had an ongoing part to play.
Discovering what’s real
I can’t claim a cataclysmic encounter with Jesus, like the one that struck Saul of Tarsus blind. In fact, I used to rue the fact that my testimony seemed so boring.
When I went to college, I tried to make a fresh start with Jesus. I suspected he was too important to relegate to a mental back burner. But, after a discouraging visit to a church near my university, I turned my back on this God who never seemed to show up. However, trying to sweep God out of my life didn’t help. Instead, I uncovered a persistent void. Without Jesus as my inner content, however unclear, there was no fixed point from which to process and measure my life.
Putting Jesus outside my daily perimeter was not the brave act of self-determination I had intended. Nothing else came close to mattering the way that gospel invitation had mattered. I confronted a reality that was new to me: The most real thing in life is what we do or don’t do with Jesus. Not having answers to my questions didn’t erase him. He was still there.
In the meantime, I went to classes, made friends, and did enough stupid things to decide that willful sin wasn’t worth it. Using fake IDs the night before made me dislike who I saw in the mirror the next morning. Eventually, God got around to giving me the Christian roommate I had prayed for a year and a half earlier, and the two of us got involved in a campus ministry. Here, I spent time with mature believers who helped me understand grace and assured me it was OK to have questions. Doing life with them helped me learn to accompany Christ.
At last, I began to understand why that Campus Crusade coed was so earnest. There’s no need for “new material” with Jesus. He is the material. Not only had he walked the streets of desert towns long ago; in a different but very real way, he desires to walk among us now.
Read, grasp, repeat
Today, I have a better idea of who I am. I’m still growing in my understanding of who Jesus is. Which takes me back to “Love Walked Among Us.” Linking Jesus and myself with the word among — meaning “connected to,” “in association with,” or “through the midst of” — is hard to take in. Can “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (Col. 1:15) really want to walk with the likes of us? We need a savior who is willing to walk among us. It’s one of those truths that’s hard to grasp and yet so necessary. Over the years I’ve discovered realities I’d never suspected were there. They weren’t obvious, but having grasped them, life has made more sense. They are gifts of understanding; the truer they are, the more I need to hear them, learn them, experience them, own them.
Here’s one that clarifies a lot for me: this life is a walk toward eternity. I first heard this years ago as a Christian radio host interviewed David Shibley, author of Living As If Heaven Matters: Preparing Now for Eternity. Today is now and, at a time of God’s choosing, we each will step into eternity. The nature of that destination will depend on what we do in this temporal life … what we do or don’t do with Jesus. There’s no opting out.
This is a more tender reality to me now than it was at the beginning of the year. At the end of January, the first man in my life, the same one who held the hymnal with me, stepped into the Lord’s presence. This isn’t a deep wish I’m holding on to with white knuckles. It’s a certain reality and source of unquestioned peace. Because I know my dad’s life contained the reality of walking with Jesus, I know where he is — and that I and my family members who are in Christ will one day be where he is.
Love walked among us here, so that we can be with him there.
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Kathy Holliday serves as office manager at Temple Baptist Church in Rockford. She and her husband, Bill, joined First Free and celebrated their first wedding anniversary on the same weekend, in the previous century. They are now undergoing a challenging season of character-building as they shelter-in-place with four of their five adult children and Harriett Fiona, the Scottish terrier to whom they all belong.