Praise Sarah, From Whom All Blessings Flow…?

I’m having a hard time writing this blog because I want to sound cool. This is the trouble with confession – the idea is to humble yourself, not justify every little pip and squiggle. So here it is: your church service has revolved around one person for the last six months: me. I know you must feel so deceived – all along, I bet you thought you were there to worship God the Father and Jesus Christ his only begotten Son, but nooooo, it has all been about me. And most of the time, I haven’t even been there to experience your glory and honor and praise.

It’s become a habit of mine to pick apart my Sunday morning church experience – from the worship music to the slide shows to the sermon to the preacher to the decorations to the congregation. Whatever took place during the hour and a half timeslot (too short! too long!), rest assured that I will have found something that could have been done better.

Here comes the self-justification: I really didn’t realize what I was doing until this weekend. Up until now, I’ve had a little twinge of unease about the ways I’ve criticized church, but mostly I felt like my critique was a constructive one. The trouble with this is I wasn’t doing anything to actually improve the church experience. I didn’t go to an elder or to the worship leader or to the pastor and share my incredible revelations. All of my great ideas about how to do church better dissipated like (excuse the expression) a fart in the wind.

It is true, and I’ve been here before. Dissatisfaction with church seems to creep up in waves, flowing freely when I am most comfortable in life and then ebbing again with the depth of my needs. When I feel secure, something happens so slowly that I don’t even notice a shift. Then the tide goes out and bam, look at all of that seaweed.

The ebb and flow I’m describing is the cyclical swing between pride and humility – standing in the presence of holiness, we are humble and aware that everything that exists around us, me included, is beautiful because of grace. But when the shine wears off and we start to drift away, things start to look a little bit normal, bland, and boring, especially when compared to our relative awesomeness, which somehow survived the dimming that everything else seemed to undergo. When we no longer compare our lives with God’s awesomeness, the next best option is to put ourselves in the place of awesomeness and compare ourselves with everyone else. And boy, I look gooooooood compared to you!

Thankfully, the Holy Spirit invites himself in to swing our pendulum back the other direction. Actually, it’s not much of a swing, it’s more like a punt. That’s where I am now, ankle deep in sticky seaweed.

When the wave of criticism starts to rise inside me and I find myself dissatisfied with church, the answer isn’t finding another church. The answer isn’t abandoning church. It isn’t necessarily running off a list of good ideas I’ve had in the last six months and sending them in an email to the deacon board, elders, and pastoral staff (No, I didn’t do this. But I could! Let me know if you want to be CC’ed.).

The answer is remembering that I am not the focal point of Christianity or of life in general. It doesn’t say, “love God by finding a congregation of people who will all behave in such a way as to fulfill Sarah’s every whim.” Weird that it doesn’t, I know. It says to love God and love one another. Church isn’t about me and my experience. This became very clear for me in the lines of a pastor quoted in Kathleen Norris’s book, Amazing Grace. “We go to church for other people. Because someone might need us there.”

Someone might need us there. There have been many a season when I have needed the people at church. What would I have done without them, all of them? Opting out of church because it isn’t fulfilling every one of my expectations is selfish. Pride. I’ll even say sin. And so, I confess that what began as minor critiques of how we can make Sunday morning worship glorify God even more turned into self-centered, prideful nit-picking that has served only to drain all of the lifeblood from my worship of God and engagement with the body of Christ.

Phew. It took a lot of paragraphs to get there, but I got there. The best thing about standing in seaweed on the beach is experiencing the sunrise. A sunrise over the ocean captivates us in such a way as to make the seaweed just something squishy we have to walk in for a time. And besides that, look how small I am compared to that! Not a belittling smallness, a healthy awareness of my relative importance, that I have the privilege to participate in this scene, even while I’m standing in seaweed.

This past Sunday, I entered our church with an enthusiasm and excitement that I haven’t experienced in months. There was a purpose in going to church Sunday, and it had nothing to do with me for a change. What role am I to play in the body of Christ today? Prayer for the pastor? Prayer for the worship pastor? Complete surrender into the worship experience? A hug for a friend? A warm smile for a visitor? Dear God, who might need me here this Sunday? Show me how I can love you this morning. It was a transformative worship experience, and the only thing that changed was my position in it – from worshipping at my own feet to worshipping the God of the universe.

It is embarrassing how arrogant and prideful I can be and how easily I can make it pass for assertive and important. I am so thankful for how the Holy Spirit has moved, through Kathleen Norris and her book, through my prayer group, through my small group of fellow believers, and through my dear friends. It doesn’t take much for me to let myself become the center of my own universe. It tends to take a lot to move me out of that spot. As much as I wish that God would have consulted me before he created the world, I am exceedingly grateful that I am not Sarah Almighty, that you are not reading the Gospel of Our Lady Sarah Wells, and that you have not actually been attending Sarah Wells Community Church for the past six months. Hallelujah!

Published by Sarah M. Wells

Sarah M. Wells is the author of The Family Bible Devotional: Stories from the Gospels to Help Kids and Parents Love God and Love Others (2022), American Honey: A Field Guide to Resisting Temptation (2021), Between the Heron and the Moss (2020), The Family Bible Devotional: Stories from the Bible to Help Kids and Parents Engage and Love Scripture (2018), Pruning Burning Bushes (2012), and a chapbook of poems, Acquiesce, winner of the 2008 Starting Gate Award through Finishing Line Press (2009). Sarah's work has been honored with four Pushcart Prize nominations, and her essays have appeared in the notable essays list in the Best American Essays 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2017, and 2018. Sarah is the recipient of a 2018 Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council. She resides in Ashland, Ohio with her husband and three children.

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