"Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. [...] Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him." James 1:2-4, 12
This weekend really exemplifies this in a lot of ways for me. I learned a lot about what it means to love other people in ways that I am not always accustomed to, or ways I usually run from because it's such a daunting lesson to learn. One of these ways is by spending a weekend going to and from Atlanta, Georgia, in one car with the same group of people. I'll preempt myself by saying that this weekend was GREAT! It was an incredible chance to learn more about what it would be like to go full-time with a certain international campus ministry, and just get to know other people who are considering the same thing. The five of us from USF who went together had a lot of fun (at least, I did) driving up there, joking around, getting to know each other better.
But it wasn't like we didn't probably get a little on the edge from time to time. Everyone gets hungry. Everyone gets tired. Everyone at some point has to go to the bathroom (the worst of the three so far!). Everyone misinterprets a joke, or something said by someone else. Everyone has certain pet peeves that other people could never anticipate having to take care to avoid. Oh, life! That's just how it works! But it is so cool to me to see these sort of "social experiments" play out for the good of God; yes, just smashing up a bunch of people to be stuck together for three straight days more or less is a recipe for seemingly imminent disaster.
Yet, it wasn't like that at all. I know for me, in moments where I was so exhausted, ready to break away for a minute, and become even a little tempted to snap because of my discomfort, I could almost literally hear a voice in my head going, this is why you need God. I am such a frail human being. I can be the most gracious and loving person on earth on my own until you take away my dinner, my quiet, my comfortable seat, my jacket when the air is blasting cold, and other things that are not in and of themselves very great or formidable at all. Those tiny things make me so unloving and ungracious very quickly, unless I am abiding in God's love, where the Holy Spirit prompts me in moments where it's tempting to go crazy at everyone to continue to demonstrate love the way He does. (1 Corinthians 13 -- read that thing now, even if you have it memorized.) It is Jesus that changes my heart not to serve my selfish will anymore, whether that will be to get my frustration taken out on someone else or walk around their feelings just so they won't hurt me. My will is to please the Savior, mirroring His character, and not compromising that perfect beauty of the Spirit with my awful quickness to self-pity and self-focus.
The world may not see this, perhaps because they don't know true Christians or perhaps because they ignore the ones they do know, but believers in Jesus have such incredible community played out over and over for them to see. If five of us have Christ in common as Lord and Savior, things that could even be huge frustrations are dwindled to nothing, forgiven, and forgotten. We can still be friends even when someone messes up (oftentimes me, unfortunately) -- and not just friends, but good friends, ones that won't remember in a week that anything bad happened at all. We can meet each other and within a couple of days be deep and dear friends. This blew the minds of my Bosnian friends. They did not understand how Americans who knew each other for a week could be so close, caring deeply for one another to shoulder each other's burdens and struggles, as well as rejoice and laugh without reservation.
Brothers and sisters in Christ also come together in remarkable ways they were never directly taught to do, for the benefit of those who are in need. Today was the funeral and burial of one of the younger brother of a beautiful sister in Christ I've known for a couple of years. I've not been to a funeral since I was four, and I barely knew what happened even then. I wouldn't know what to expect or do in and of myself. When we arrived there, several other friends had driven from Tampa to Orlando just for this hour-long service. Both people who were incredibly close to her and people who were more or less acquaintances had tears in their eyes for her loss, feeling the pain as if it were theirs to feel, maybe never even having set eyes on her brother for themselves. She had a circle of people who loved her pray for her heart earnestly, with great compassion and desperation for supernatural healing. Men were not above weeping for her and beside her. I'd say hundreds of believers have prayed for her and her family since the tragedy last week, and continue to do so, and the results are palpable.
I never thought I'd see the sister of a man who passed too young laugh with her friends at his burial, after the tears, remembering the good times she had with him and what a light he was to the world. (Watch this video.) But we were able to spend time with her enjoying life, celebrating who he was and the footprints he's left in the hearts of people who knew him. What a blessing to see even one smile at this time, let alone many! Such a tragic accident has the potential to ruin the life of a loved one left behind, reducing them to endless depression, forcing them to wonder if life's worth living in such a miserable place as this. How great the hope is that there's a God who heads a family as the loving Father, adopting many sons and daughters, who with infinite love in their hearts come to one another's aid, praying urgently and extending a hand to squeeze in the hard moments.
This is real.
The church is not a building; it's not some made-up group of people that has been lost over time. It's here today. There are people so in love with Jesus that they will willingly lay down their lives, needs, and desires for the sake of others. I count myself too blessed to know even a taste of what this means.
I'm honored to be a tiny organ in this functioning body, and having the chance to be refined in my ability to love others no matter what is precious. Whether it's learning to love someone when you're not comfortable or necessarily happy, or learning to love someone who has suffered more than you can know, I hope to seize these God-given moments to be taught and corrected into a clearer image of Christ when they arrive. You can never know when your ability to love will be put to the test.
"Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends." John 15:13
Whether that is literally laying our lives down, or laying down our "lives" as we live them day-to-day according to our needs and purposes, it's of immense importance to love others to the point that we spare nothing to see them closer to knowing and loving God.