hallenges: they aren't necessarily pleasant, but they aren't exactly unwelcome, either. Most of us make games out of our challenges where there's an objective goal and objective reward, even if the reward is merely bragging rights. Sometimes we challenge ourselves physically, or academically, or mentally.
We build for ourselves small houses out of our challenges, and we live in those houses until we can figure out how to break free, becoming victors over the task. Where there are limits, we feel compelled to exceed them. We've got to break the ceiling. We don't simply fold our hands while we plan our escape from the house. We act. We move hard and fast until we're finally able to break through the ceiling that held us down for so long, keeping us from catapulting among the stars.
I don't particularly like challenges. I don't like the sensation of being out of my element, although I am fond of the feeling of rocketing through ceilings. Success. Payment for hard work, as if to say I am deserving of reward, even though deep down, I know all the glory and fame should be rising through the busted ceiling, flying higher than I and ascending to the heavens until it gracefully reaches the throne of God. Even when we think we're the victors over our challenges, the Lord alone is deserving of the glory.
The Christian life requires many ceilings to be broken; there are innumerable challenges when you care for God's people. My husband and I are involved in church revitalization: taking a small, beaten-up church and trying to (by the power of the Holy Spirit) cultivate new life within its body. Church revitalization requires a lot force to break the ceiling. Those vaulted roofs with ornamental steeples need not just be broken. They need to be shattered. Dissolved. It's hard and grueling and some days I don't want to get out of bed, especially Sundays.
We came to this church several years ago and were told that a normal Sunday looked like 12 people in the particle board pews. Those 12 dwindled even further. 8. 6. 3. We were blessed to never have a Sunday when no one showed up, but we had close calls. Paul and I had conversations about what we would do if no one came, would we carry-on as usual for the Facebook live stream? Would we pack up and call it a day? Thankfully, there was never a need to implement our emergency plans.
We fumbled through our first year with little support, making many mistakes along the way. We had our highest highs, when we were allowed by the Spirit to lead someone to the Lord, and our lowest lows, when that same saint passed away in what seemed to be breaths away. God gives and takes away.
We were slandered, accused, and we were tired. We found drug paraphernalia in the unseen cracks of the church, where no one thought to look because it seemed safe. We found mice in the cupboard among the communion supplies, an analogy for the troubled history of the church. We found minutes from old business meetings that revealed callousness toward the community, chaining and fencing the church off from those they pledged to serve. We saw the underbelly, but we also found good things like old photo albums of church picnics with smiling faces abounding. We found the 40-year-old testimony of how God had established the church, a witness almost half a century later to the work that God had begun among our people. We found the original blueprints for the building which caused us to remember the foundation of the Gospel that we ought to cling to and the plan of God that we ought to submit to, no matter the difficulty that may lay ahead. We saw the brightest parts of our church's past, but not without seeing the depth with which Satan had attacked and wooed saints to the wiles of sin. God gave, and He took away.
I wish that I could say our next year was simpler or more outwardly fruitful, but it really wasn't. We had moments where it seemed the fog had been lifted, perhaps our challenges were on their way out. We breathed in deeply the sweet aromas of hope, aromas that would turn out to be poisonous and bitter. We learned to not hold too tightly to temporary things or plans which we had sought to implement rather than the Lord.
So far, the third year has given us more ups and downs than we could ever have tried to account for. We kept up the house of the challenge, though. We expanded as we could and devised ways to break open the arduous ceiling, making way for the brilliant sun to finally light up our faces.
It wasn't Easter Sunday or Christmas when there are typically many visitors. It wasn't a service where members had brought friends and family from out of town to come and visit. It was a normal Sunday like any other, but this Sunday we didn't find ourselves wistfully wondering if we would be small cell of believers. There was nothing special to be expected, but the worshippers came in and we celebrated God as a family of over 40 people for the first time since our launch Sunday. Unified in our praise of the Lord God, we broke the ceiling. The Lord gave.
The next Sunday was slightly less, though. And the one after even fewer. Some went on vacation, some left permanently, some have been swallowed up by life itself. And now, months later, we find ourselves in that headspace once more of, "will anybody really come and worship the Lord with us today?" It's hard and it's painful. We look up at that ceiling that we finally broke through and we see a gaping hole, letting in the blistering sun and drowning rains. Our skin is scorched and are lips are chapped from exposure. We found ourselves crying up to the Heavens asking God why such painful things were happening. Why were we losing people, resources, hope? The Lord had taken away.
I was beside myself with grief; it felt like utter failure. It felt like everything was resting on our shoulders, though I knew the fact of the matter was that it wasn't. It seemed as though the Lord had led us to a desolate place, asking us to work and toil over ground that was impossibly infertile, wholly insufferable. It felt like we could never measure-up to the success of those around us–churches that were established, fully-funded, well-staffed.
Maybe you sympathize with these feelings, too. Perhaps the confusion of why God has lead you to where you are is overwhelming, or your challenges seem diabolically daunting, or maybe you thought you broke the ceiling only to look up and see the gaping holes left behind.
I may not understand my circumstances, and I may have to squint through the fog to see my God clearly. But His character doesn't change. I have to allow myself to rest in that. His love is higher than the heavens, His knowledge of us deeper than the sea. His compassion is everlasting, and His goodness is unrelenting. Though our circumstances betray us, God explicitly does not.
Maybe I had misunderstood the ceiling I was meant to break. Maybe the ceiling isn't numbers. Maybe it isn't even the fact that the church remains open, or that we're financially self-sufficient. Maybe the ceiling is knowing Christ more, and inviting others to come along on the journey. Maybe the ceiling is abounding in holiness in pursuit of the likeness of Jesus Christ in my life. The ceiling could be a good thing, something to keep us humbled before the Lord. The ceiling could be a great thing. May we never break the ceiling.
Sarah Morrison is a staff writer for The Daily Grace Co.