United in Presence
Say the words:
“Damian Lillard’s buzzer beater”
to any true Portland Trail Blazers fan and you will undoubtedly witness a wry smile spread across their face in less than .9 seconds. Give them another few seconds and I’m almost certain they would eagerly recite where they were, who they were with and describe the eerie and palpable hush felt just before that infamous three-pointer unhinged the suppressed joy of an entire city. In living rooms and sports bars across the greater Portland area, hugs and shouts of elation, nearly measurable on the Richter scale, were shared by family, friends and strangers alike.
Now, if you just glanced at your search bar to make sure you were actually on Joy of It’s blog and not ESPN’s front page, rest assured you’re in the right place! And take it from this Jesus loving NBA fanatic – coming together over a sports team might just have a thing or two to teach us about uniting together in presence as the Bride of Christ.
Enjoying watching the NBA may seem like an unworthy use of time to some, but honestly, I relish the opportunity to watch and talk about basketball whenever I can. The sense of unity that I feel with fellow Blazers fans is something I crave. Whether it’s a three-point shot that catapults us into the second round of playoffs, or a well-executed pick and roll that gives us a small lead before half time, hollering and jumping up with excitement, and maybe even hugging a stranger in a crowd of 20,000 people (or maybe only a few) is such a beautiful and unifying experience.
Celebrating our favorite sports team’s victory transcends the multitude of ways that we find to be divided.
Young, old, brown, yellow, white, male, female. Whether you’ve got front row seats, are in the nose-bleeds, or in your friends living room, all it takes is that one common denominator of fandom to bring all types of people together; intuitively setting aside differences and instead picking up the mantle of oneness.
While the unity found in the stands of a sporting event is beautiful, I find it doesn’t hold a candle to the profound joy of uniting in spirit and presence with my church family.
God has created us to be relational to our very core and put in us a desire to celebrate, lament, and just be ourselves in a diverse community of believers. From the tambourine-laden moment of worship led by Miriam and Moses after God parted the Red sea, to the spirit-filled explosion of collective and diverse worship displayed at Pentecost, the bible is chalked full of examples and reminders that life is better together.
And not just the text-my-friend-funny-Beyoncé-memes and post-my-woes-to-Instagram kind of life together. No. What our souls have been crafted to desire and need is a unity that requires our physical bodies being present together, praising and worshiping our deeply loving and worthy God.
To say what I mean in as few words as possible: going to church matters.
Participating in church and uniting in presence with other believers is hardly a new and exciting idea. And yet it stands to be one of the hardest parts of Christianity to live out. Multiple studies cite that the average church-goer attends a service just once a month. Just the word church might dig up past hurts and traumas you’d rather not visit. If it isn’t hurt, maybe it’s the inconvenience of rounding up multiple littles in a car knowing that you only have about a 50% chance of getting all of them to stay in their Sunday school classes without tears.
Maybe you haven’t found a church with the right music, the right preaching, the right eschatology, the right people. And when you’ve got multiple libraries worth of sermon content, quality worship music, and even live-streamed church services a click away, why bother, right?
Whatever the reasons that have kept us away from our church families, whether it’s been weeks or even years –
I believe Jesus is calling for His Bride to come to a new and truer place of unity.
The list of sins committed by the church is surely long and there are many, many legitimate reasons to feel hesitant to engage. What I want to lovingly share with you is a few reasons why I believe it is time for us to re-center our hearts and make uniting in presence with other believers an essential element of our walk with Jesus.
Uniting in Presence reminds us we are not alone.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” 2 Corinthians 1:3-4
We live in a time where isolating ourselves from community is incredibly easy. Western culture nearly demands that we buy into the lie of complete self-sufficiency and hyper-individualism. But God tells us that “it is not good that man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18).
When we unite in presence we say amen to God’s good design for us to be in relationship. When we come together to worship Jesus we are reminded by both God and our community that we are not alone and have the great privilege of reminding others that they too are surrounded by a loving community of faith.
Uniting in Presence teaches us to value diversity.
“In the household of faith, our relationship with God takes priority over our relatedness to family, race, culture, nation, gender, or any other group we belong to…The household of God is an image that beckons the community of Jesus Christ to be a place of convergence for the great rivers of humanity. People of all cultures, races, languages, nations, tribes, and clans reside in the household of faith.” —Curtiss DeYoung
Our country and church long for unity in diversity and yet our politics are more polarized than ever; and Sundays remain largely segregated. And the longer we cling to the safety of sameness in our circles, the easier it is to buy into the lie that those different than us have less value.
One of the greatest remedies to these toxic thoughts of exclusion and othering remains joining other Jesus followers on a Sunday morning, united in presence and worshiping Jesus together – not in spite of, but because of our differences. And though not every church community is the perfect picture of diversity, when we are faithful in uniting and loving one another as we are called to be, God remains faithful and stirs in us a spirit for an even deeper and more multi-faceted picture of unity in our communities of faith.
Uniting in Presence gives us a spirit of “WE” not “ME”.
“Therefore, if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” Philippians 2:1-4
You may have noticed that the list I wrote out of reasons to not attend church all stemmed from a “me first” mentality.
Often, when looking for a new church community, the first question we seek to have answered is, “what does this church have to offer me?” And likely, with a “me first” mentality, restlessness, disenchantment and a multitude of reasons to not attend church will pile up quickly.
When we ask instead, “how God, do you want to work in and through me?” we will most certainly be led to firmly root ourselves in a Jesus-centered community. Instead of showing up to consume, Jesus shows us and asks us to be united in presence – giving love to others and glorifying God by using the gifts we have been equipped with for the greater good of God’s people.
I don’t know what your relationship is to the church and where this leaves you. Maybe you are running away from a community when God is asking you stay put. Maybe you have been endlessly looking for a church to plant yourself in, but have been seeking with the wrong perspective. Maybe it’s been years since you’ve even tried to come together with other believers and Jesus is growing in you a renewed thirst for unity. Maybe you’ve been settled in the same community for years, but are realizing you have not been earnestly seeking a oneness in spirit.
Wherever you are, I pray Jesus stirs in your heart a renewed longing to be united in presence with our most high God and his beautiful children; our family.
United in presence, singing of the goodness of God at the top of our lungs, says in the truest way that Jesus transcends our differences and our doubts, and declares that God is good, sovereign and bigger than every rift and every reason we make up to excuse ourselves from the mandate to come together as the united Bride of Christ.
P.S. If you find yourself hungering to be united in presence with your greater church family, please join me August 7th at Joy of It’s One Body United in His Presence: Summertime Worship Night and Concert! It will be a great opportunity to worship and fellowship with other believers- a perfect first step to getting reacquainted with the church!
Holly Ann is a Jesus loving Singer/Songwriter from Portland, OR. She serves as a worship leader and as the director of hospitality at Door of Hope church. Her passions and hobbies include literature, film, poetry, social psychology, unity/the multi-cultural church, and discussing how the Christian faith intersects with all of these things – one-on-one, over coffee, like a true introvert. Holly has been married to Nathan for six years and they have a very enthusiastic lab puppy named Baloo.