Aug 16, 2023
My hope for the church has recently been encouraged by crying in a storage room. Before I explain, I want to give us some context for Paul’s letters to Timothy. Paul is Timothy’s mentor, and in his letter, he instructs Timothy to help the Church in Ephesus find its way back to following Christ’s ways.
The church in Ephesus had mixed the ancient Greek and contemporary Roman cultural beliefs in their worship, preaching, and life. They reached the point where they, as a church, created something entirely different from the message of Jesus.
With that in mind, let me read the encouragement that Paul gives Timothy as he embarks on his journey to nudge the church of Ephesus back toward Christ. “When I left for Macedonia, I urged you to stay there in Ephesus and stop those whose teaching is contrary to the truth. Don’t let them waste their time in endless discussion of myths and spiritual pedigrees.
These things only lead to meaningless speculations, which don’t help people live a life of faith in God. The purpose of my instruction is that all believers would be filled with love that comes from a pure heart, a clear conscience, and genuine faith. But some people have missed this whole point. They have turned away from these things and spend their time in meaningless discussions.
They want to be known as teachers of the law of Moses, but they don’t know what they are talking about, even though they speak so confidently.” 1 Timothy 1:3-7 …filled with love from a pure heart and genuine faith.
My heart yearns for that. I imagine that your heart yearns for that as well. Yet, we live in Ephesus.
Our churches today suffer in a similar way to the church in Ephesus. The Ephesian church had lost its focus on the foundation of God’s love, and lost itself in the Roman and Greek cultural influences that pushed against the truth of Jesus. Not only did they mix all these different beliefs, they, as a community, spent their time speculating and arguing about what the church’s beliefs should be. In one sense, the church should be having healthy discussions about its collective beliefs, but their discussions turned into arguments, which led to the absence of love, genuine faith, and pure hearts.
So where do we find genuine faith and hope for the church in the context of all this brokenness and hopelessness? Personally, I have found it from being a witness to students’ hearts.
As a youth pastor, I’ve heard my students ask big questions that reflect their even bigger hearts. These students have shown me that before we can ever hope to be a community that points others to Jesus or a saving witness to the world around us, we must first posture ourselves to be fully present to the people around us.
In the summer of 2022, we took our middle school youth group on a mission trip to Charleston, West Virginia. Each night, we set aside ‘group time’ before bed, which was a time for our youth group to discuss the day. Our students picked the storage room in the basement as our group time meeting space. This storage room was accompanied by stained cement floors, several old plastic Christmas trees, a nasty yet comfortable leather couch, and chairs made for toddlers. But the students didn’t mind; that was our spot.
One night during group time, Andrew, one of our students, shared a story about another student he had met that day named Armani. Armani met Andrew while serving at a shelter for women struggling with addiction. Andrew began to share that this child was at the shelter because his parents were absent from his life through the struggle of drug abuse.
In that absence, his grandfather, who worked at the shelter, stepped in to raise him. Armani’s story struck a deep chord with Andrew because he, too, had lost both of his parents and was being raised by a grandparent. As Andrew finished his story, he said something that will always stick with me: “Armani was so happy, even despite all that had happened to him.”
As he said this, I began to think that Andrew, in a way, got a chance to care for his younger self—to look his own story in the eyes and see all that likely confused and hurt him when he was Armani’s age—and see his younger self smile back at him. If you knew Andrew, you’d know that nothing in the world would break his spirit for life.
Through his story, he set the tone for that room to be a space where other students could freely share.
More students began recognizing that the pain and struggle they felt so alone in was a shared struggle of hurt and loss. As students shared how God had been reconciling the painful parts of their lives, they collectively laid hands on each person and surrounded them in prayer. Hands-on prayer turned into a giant group hug after each student shared.
After we had prayed for everyone, a student said something that I will always remember: “I forgot who I was hugging!” Through all the hugs and prayers, each student was held by God in a way that will forever change the way I see the church. What kind of community becomes so present to the trials and tribulations of their peers that they simply forget who they are hugging, comforting, or extending compassion to?
I saw so many students learn about God’s love with a posture of listening to the pain of others to reach a more compassionate understanding of one another. That’s genuine faith, that’s a pure heart, that’s God’s love.
Just like those youth group students have modeled so well, the call and responsibility for each of us is to posture ourselves as learners and listeners of the teacher Jesus.
Sit at the feet of Jesus and be a lifelong learner of his heart. When we do that, we offer ourselves to become a more compassionate community because we have trained our ears to hear his pain stories. We become a compassionate community filled with love from a pure heart, a clear conscience, and genuine faith.