The time of the falling of leaves has come again. Once more in our morning walk we tread upon carpets of gold and crimson, of brown and bronze,...”
I sat down today planning to write about my scooter accident on Saturday. I wanted to write about it two seconds after it happened. For whatever reason, I felt compelled…
Justin and I were in Chicago. We rented scooters. I wasn’t very good at riding the scooter. I was nervous and slow to catch on. We tooled around in a neighborhood for a few minutes, and then prepared to turn into two-lane traffic. I got anxious, didn’t lean into my turn, missed the lane, and hopped a curb onto the sidewalk in the direction of a brick wall. Simultaneously, I tried to slow my vehicle by pulling back on the throttle. Turns out, that’s how you give it gas. I ran into a wall at something like 20 miles per hour.
By the grace of God (I like to give God credit for all the good things) I’m fine—bruised and sore—but fine. The scooter’s okay, too. A couple hundred bucks in damage, but not totaled.
I’ve been thinking all morning about why I wanted to share that story so much. It’s not particularly interesting, surprising or beautiful.
Maybe it’s because I could have died, and almost-died moments re-frame the way we see. Because I want you to remember death is a thief, hiding where we least expect.
Maybe I want to share this story because I really should have listened to my gut when it very loudly proclaimed, “You are not going to be good at this.” Because I want you to listen to your often-wise intuition.
And maybe I’m writing about this because I can see now I really should have practiced for longer when the instructor suggested I might. Jumping into hard things without preparing often ends poorly.
All of those are good lessons for living.
But I think the real reason I wanted to tell you I hit a wall going way too fast on a scooter is this: I’m alive. Because I lived to tell the story, I feel compelled to tell it—to celebrate life and living and the delight that is cheating death.
In a way, cheating death is the gospel. You should have died, but you didn’t. You should die, but you won’t. It’s touching your arms and legs with open palms, surprised to find them still attached and working—knowing you’ve been spared something that, just seconds earlier, seemed terribly inevitable.
It’s the best feeling. Good, good news.
It’s a marriage that seemed like prison that now, praise God, sustains and challenges and fills.
It’s an addiction you thought would drive you to the grave, broken, defeated, conquered.
It’s a tragedy that tied you to your bed in tears, now redeemed, overcome, and shaping.
And it’s lying in a hospital bed knowing, whatever happens, you’ll live.
Jesus said to the frustrated Jews, leaders who would take His life in a matter of days, “My sheep listen to my voice… I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.” I love that they killed Jesus to disprove Him, and in killing Him, enabled, even ushered in, the eternal life He promised.
No one can take your God-given life. Not even death.
When it tries (and inevitably fails), stand up, brush yourself off, and proclaim the gospel of death cheated. Proclaim it here to a death-ruled people seeking life. Or proclaim it there, before the throne of death’s Defeater.
I flew to Huntsville on Friday, because the doctors thought my grandfather was dying. I flew to be there and not so far away. I’m always hating how far away I am.
My girls and I ran into a seven hour lay over in Charlotte, and I didn’t see my Papa until Saturday morning. By then, the doctors thought maybe they’d been wrong. Maybe he’d pull through.
I sat beside him and held his hand; we watched SEC football for hours. Half way through the Georgia/Tennessee game he said, “Jennifer. Jennifer!”
I turned; “Yes, Papa?”
He said, “I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
He said, “Just thought I’d throw that out there.”
I spoke yesterday to a room of mostly older women—lots of gray hair—at the College Church of Christ in Searcy, Arkansas. I was there to talk about making bad choices and making good choices and coming back to God when we make too many bad ones and find ourselves estranged.
I spoke alongside a new friend, Hannah, and the two of us encouraged the audience to ask questions or comment as we went.
About half way through the presentation, I felt like I needed to address the gap in our ages (Hannah and I both being so much younger than our audience). And so I spoke directly to the older women in the room, and asked them to do their best to make coming back easy for the young people who wander away. I said, “Love them.” A few minutes later, I encouraged them to speak truth, too, to call us back when we don’t realize we’re wandering.
At that moment, an older woman stood and told Hannah and I a story about a way she’d intervened in the lives of a young couple at her church. And it was beautiful and exactly what we needed to hear.
It felt to me, at that moment, like we were all really connecting. I told those women, “We need you.” And they came up to me after the lesson and said, “We need you, too.”
More and more in church world, young people and older people find themselves segregated. We attend different Bible classes, we’re in different small groups, we go to different services (contemporary and traditional, early and late), we often attend different churches altogether based on preference, taste, and the bounty of options available.
I grew up in St. Petersburg, FL, a retirement city. When I was a kid it seemed like everyone—everyone—was old. St Pete. was also fairly “secular” or “unchurched.” Most of the kids I went to school with didn’t go to church anywhere.
In St. Pete. you picked where you went to church not based on the preacher or the building or the children’s ministry; you picked the one you could drive to in less than thirty minutes.
My church was 100 people strong, forty of whom were my family members, and included exactly one kid my age. Later, our “youth group” would be me, my brother, and my friend Stephanie. Most everyone else was old.
I grew up with old people, surrounded by old people, and they were my friends. When my grandmother died when I was eight, they stepped in to help. Helen Bell, Joetta Lane, Mary Perry—I loved them and listened to them. I dropped by their apartments in retirement villages just to talk.
I taught with them, planned ladies’ days with them, and ate their potluck food. I sat beside them in worship and in Bible class. I can hear to this day the sound of their voices singing “He Leadeth me.”
These experiences, these women, were an indescribable gift.
I had a woman tell me yesterday, “You’re wiser than you ought to be.” I laughed, and said, “It’s because I’ve listened to people like you.”
I want that for my girls. I want it for all of us.
Most of my readers are young; so it’s probable you’re young. Can I remind you of something? You need old people.
I know you think they’re stubborn and don’t know what they’re talking about. But, let’s be real, you’re stubborn, too, and you for sure don’t know what you’re talking about.
Give them a chance.
Older people have wisdom and perspective that you simply cannot get on your own. Too, they’re good at loving, really good. They’ve had many years to perfect their skills.
If older people make you nervous, I get it (I’ve seen so many teenagers and young adults clam up, sweaty and uncomfortable, in the presence of elders). Older people move and speak slowly. They think before they act. They are your opposite in so many ways. And it takes courage and patience to enter into a relationship with someone who’s different.
Do it anyway. Because relationships with people who’re different are the relationships most likely to challenge and refine us.
Walk up to an older person you admire, and build a friendship. Talk to them, not as your equal but as your superior. Talk loudly but not like you do to a person who can’t speak English, yelling and oversimplifying. Use the full extent of your vocabulary. Older people are hard of hearing, not understanding. Put your phone away. Be still. Don’t try to fill every silence. Ask questions. Tell stories.
I spent the night Saturday night reading the Bible with my Papa. Every time I’d finish a passage, he’d say, “That was a beautiful letter you wrote, Jennifer.” He knew we were reading scripture because he’d quote it as we read, but when we’d pause he’d get mixed up and think we were reading my blog posts.
After about an hour, I closed the Bible. Papa said, “Jennifer, your beautiful letters have left me so full…” And I cried. Because I’d had the chance to bless him, to read the verses he loved so much and couldn’t read for himself. And because he ‘d actually been blessed by my writing—he’d told my uncle, “You should read those tidbits Jennifer writes. They taste so good.”
I never expected to have the privilege of feeding my grandfather the way he’d fed me.
When I leaned in to kiss my papa, I realized he hadn’t actually meant that his heart was full; he meant his nose was. All the crying he’d been doing as we read had left his nose full. Of snot.
So I grabbed a tissue and held it to his nose, plugging one nostril and then the next while he blew.
Old people need us, too.
My daughters are five and six; their thoughts are only of life—running, playing, jumping, eating, discovering—their days a jumble of verbs. They live on the line between now and next.
I am thirty-three. My verbs are less active—writing, driving, listening—and my thoughts more divided between life and death. An Aunt emailed this morning with hard news about a cousin’s cancer. A friend’s wife has cancer, too—just diagnosed yesterday. My grandfather is dying as I type. I fly to Huntsville tomorrow to grab a moment beside his hospital bed before there are no more moments to grab.
The people around me are dying. Let’s be real: I’m dying. We’re all dying. And the older we get, the more we notice.
I went to see my friend Dorcas last week. Dorcas has kidney problems, other problems, too. Her doctor says if she leaves the house she’ll probably get sick, because her immune system is almost totally defunct. I don’t know how old she is. Maybe 80? Maybe 70. Either way, she’s stuck in her house, and the medicines she takes keep her in bed until noon.
Like me, she’s dying. But she’s older, so she notices more
In fact, the looming weight of impending death sometimes crushes her, leaving her buried under cold, multi-syllabic words about medicines and surgeries, unable to talk about almost anything else. I ask how she is, and she sighs—a long, surrender of a sigh—before launching into her most recent doctor’s visit.
I hate death. I make no apologies for that. It is a great and powerful evil, an enemy of the Kingdom of Abundant Life.
To die, to sleep, to move from here to a better, brighter there—that is a beautiful thing.
But Death—the garden-born, consequential force displayed in decay and sickness, like an evil boa constrictor, strangling humankind from the moment of conception—that death I oppose.
I heard a man say once, “God intends to kill us all in the end.” But I believe no such thing. God’s intention has always been life.
The Apostle Paul says “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
Before that final destruction, in the here and right now, our defense against death is life. Fortunately, Jesus offers it in good measure.
He says, “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.”
Talking to Dorcas this last week, her house newly painted, the furniture rearranged, I saw signs of life breaking through. Her house had always been dark, but she’d had a tree removed from the front yard and now light poured through the windows.
She told me about her daughter bringing her a coffee and muffin from Starbucks. She described the moment she woke and saw it on the dining room table. She clearly didn’t know why it meant so much to her. But it did.
She told me about her son bringing Italian food to the house, about eating it with him and laughing and about having boxes of leftovers. She told me about opening the fridge the next day and seeing the leftovers, and she cried as she tried to explain what those leftovers meant.
She said, in essence, the leftovers were proof of life. Proof she’d lived.
I said, “New moments are so important.” And she said, “Yes. New moments. Yes. That’s it.” And she leaned back in her chair and smiled.
This a simple post—more thoughts than anything, a battle plan I scratched on a napkin as I watched a woman struggle to live in the shadow of death.
For Dorcas, life asserts itself in new moments—new breaths, new foods, new topics of conversation—every “new” a reminder that life persists.
For us, the same thing is true. New relationships, trips, books, movies, foods, and (especially) moments with God drive and multiply the life inside us. When we stop discovering and meeting and learning, our lives shrink.
Death (the force of death and dying) diminishes us.
As children of life, our great mission is to live, to let life bloom into an expansive and advancing fullness. Too, those of us least affected by the weight of death live to help the dying, to stand beside them as they defy the forces of death, delivering new moments to their doors.
I pray this week you’d consider reaching out to a person especially burdened by death—someone sick, someone grieving, someone home-bound.
Visit her. Call him. Give them a new moment.
Remind them they’re alive. Help them fight.
A few weeks back I received a message from a young woman I hadn’t talked to in more than a decade. I knew her as a fresh-faced, eager little girl who never stopped talking and never stopped smiling. Even now I can see her thick, bobbed hair bouncing to the rhythm of her delightful chatter. And yet, here was a message from a woman, all grown up, gorgeous, staring back at me from a small square profile pic.
The message was long, articulate, and hard.
She said she didn’t really go to church anymore. She wrote,
The church has turned into a man-made, self-sustaining machine of sorts, rather than the spiritual sanctuary and meeting ground that I believe God intended it to be.
She made it clear that she hadn’t left God. She just didn’t really see God in His church.
She sent me a link to an article (one of many circulating online recently) about why people are leaving church and asked me to consider it, perhaps to write about the same subject but through my lens. Maybe I could open eyes…
People send me blog post ideas pretty frequently. My dad usually has one for me every time I visit. I’m honored by these requests. When someone asks me to write about something close to his or her heart, they’re entrusting me with something precious.
But this request was different. It felt heavier.
I’ve been thinking about why people leave church for a few years now, reading books and blogs and magazine articles about millenials, reading the contentious comments section every time someone suggests the church (in my circles the Church of Christ) consider changing practices or patterns. Meanwhile, I’ve seen young people I love, men and women I know love God, struggle to hang on in churches they don’t understand and churches that don’t understand them.
I’ve read that young people leave “the church” because our tradition refuses to allow instruments or to encourage women to participate more broadly in our Sunday worship events.
I’ve read that people leave church because we care too much about a slick Sunday worship service.
I’ve read people leave the church because we spend too much time talking about issues.
Because we don’t seem loving.
Because we do seem angry.
Because we speak a language young people and outsiders don’t understand.
Because we don’t like questions.
Because we aren’t authentic.
Because, as my friend said, church feels more like a machine than a sanctuary.
The list of complaints is long.
And I think it deserves a listen. I think we owe these people, men and women who really do want to find God in our midst, I think we owe them a hearing.
In so many cases, they’re spot on.
The church does need to change.
My husband is a preacher, so I have a soft spot in my heart for the local church. And I have definite feelings about what the word “church” means.
Few things get the Gerhardts more riled up than when somebody says “The church is so…” or “The church never…” or “The church can’t…” Those phrases bother us, because we wonder what exactly people mean when they say them. They’re an attempt to generalize what is actually very specific and personal.
It’s like when we invite friends over to our house for dinner and they say they can’t come but follow up with “Hope you guys have fun!” And we wonder, “Who is this ‘you guys’?” Because if the people invited to the party don’t come to the party, there is no party.
When I was a little girl, I learned early that the church is the people. All the people.
That’s Church of Christ 101. You don’t go to church; you are the church.
So if that’s true, what do people mean when they say they’re leaving the church?
They mean they’re leaving the people.
They may not think that’s what they mean. It’s easier to leave an organization, a hierarchy, a body outside ourselves. But if you root around for long enough you’ll see:
When people leave the church, they leave because of people.
You may think I’m about to launch in on people who leave, but I’m not. I think we people can make leaving the people an easy thing to do.
It’s easy to leave the people of God when the people of God don’t look like God.
Jesus said to judge a tree by its fruit. A lot of people are looking around at the Christians close by, wondering what happened to the harvest.
Likely they’re not looking hard enough.
But should finding fruit among God’s elect require a magnifying glass?
Fruit isn’t hard for me to find. And maybe that’s why I struggle to counsel the leaving. I look around on any Sunday, and I see fruit everywhere. I see parents, exhausted but trying, driven by Christ’s love to get their kids up out of bed to hear stories about God. I see men and women opening their lives and homes to the homeless, abandoned, and lost. I see people taking giant risks with their money and time, risks that don’t even seem like risks through the lens of big faith.
I sit in a circle with my small group or around a table at women’s Bible study, and I watch people grapple with hard questions and hard decisions, totally committed to God’s plan for their lives.
I see God all over the people in my church family. I would never leave it, because I’m not about to leave the living presence of Christ.
As I strain to offer wisdom, I’m reminded of that Ghandi quote you encounter so often during graduation season; He said, “Be the change you want to see.” I’d change it to this for our purposes: Be the church you want to see.
The church will never change until the people in it do.
Not the people in some broad, general sense. The church won’t change, until YOU do.
If we really care about the people who’re leaving, we’ll stop pointing fingers at systems and programs, patterns, and methods and we’ll step up and into our full identity in Christ—becoming people who’re full of love, joy, peace patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
God desires living sacrifices, lives lived entirely under His command, and in those lives He works wonders, the kinds of inexplicable marvels that only make sense in light of God’s power and grace. Ours is a gospel of miraculous transformation, of resurrection and freedom and eternal, abundant life, starting NOW. It’s not boring or stale or irrelevent. It changes the way we live every second of every day.
When we live that kind of life up close to other people, they cannot help but be drawn to the light of our Savior.
People don’t leave a Savior they can see.
I know this is true because I have friends who stuck around when all they wanted to do was leave. They disagreed with the preaching. They didn’t buy into the programs. They felt like progress was too slow. They struggled to connect in worship.
And they stayed. Because they were living among God’s people. Because they were loved and challenged, inspired and accepted. because time after time when they encountered the body, they encountered Christ.
If we want people to stay, we should let God transform us into the image of Christ.
"And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus." I John 4:16-17
Comments should refer to the ideas in the post and be directed toward me, the author. I will delete any comments directed toward or specifically about the young lady mentioned at the beginning. We are blessed by her vulnerability, and I’d hate to see it mishandled. Thanks!