My parents wanted to instill in their children a faith in God, so we went to church every Sunday. Week in and week out, we showed up as a family, kneeled and prayed, followed along with the readings, put an envelope in the offering basket, shook hands and said, “Peace be with you,” then left to go on with the rest of our week until it was time to do it again. To me, church always felt more like it was about status and obligation, rather than cultivating a relationship with God. I learned to feel guilty about anything and everything and that I could never do enough to be a good person, worthy of someday being welcomed into Heaven.
While my basic faith in God never wavered, my experience with church in general did turn me off to organised religion and attending church anywhere. I felt that way for the better part of 20 years, but my feelings changed completely about 7 years ago. While I was visiting a friend she took me to her home church, Mercy Hill, in Milwaukee, WI. There, I felt such a strong sense of fellowship and joy that I’d never experienced before.
I was taken aback the first time I visited Mercy Hill. It was pretty much the opposite of what I thought a church was supposed to be. It’s in an old industrial space, with wood floors, brick walls and exposed beams and pipes on the ceiling. Instead of people sitting completely quiet in pews, dressed in their “Sunday best” and waiting for the service to begin… people were relaxing in rows of upholstered chairs, sipping cups of coffee and chatting, wearing anything from shorts and sandals, to a police uniform, to dressy clothes…it simply didn’t matter.
There was no one shushing the talkers with the expectation that silence is how you show respect in the house of God. Instead, everyone chatted about topics ranging from their children, to that afternoon’s Packer game, to last week’s sermon, to upcoming church events. When service officially began, everyone was engaged with the sermon, of course. But before and after that, they interacted as a community. I never experienced that feeling of fellowship while growing up in my childhood church. For years, we attended church with the same people every week, yet I don’t recall ever getting to know any of them.
The music at Mercy Hill wasn’t what I expected either. It wasn’t the sombre, dutiful music I was accustomed to. It was joyful and loud, led by several church members who happened to be blessed with musical ability. The assistant pastor sported a goatee and rocked out on a guitar, along with several other equally talented musicians. My heart sang that day and so did I!… I actually sang out loud in church for the first time ever. That’s when I started to cry, and when my relationship with God started to grow. I’ve always had faith, but that’s the first time I started to actually listen to God’s Word.
When I moved to Northern Ireland 15 years ago, I was told, “Oh, you don’t talk about religion here. It’s not a good idea.” So I didn’t. Talking about faith outside of church wasn’t something we did a lot of while growing up anyway, so staying quiet about it wasn’t difficult for me. I considered my faith and my relationship with God to be personal, and not something that I felt compelled to talk about. That began to change with one seemingly little thing…a few years ago, a customer came into my shop and asked me to paint a scripture piece for her pastor who was celebrating 30 years with the church.
Standing at the counter painting that piece opened a door to so many faith related conversations that I began to yearn for more. I was also surprised at how many people started asking for scripture art, so I began to create more. In doing so, I was reading scripture, something I hadn’t done in years. I’d always found reading the Bible a bit like reading Shakespeare. I’d get so lost in the language that I couldn’t decipher the meaning. I just didn’t get it. By putting scripture in front of me through art, God spoke to me in a language that resonated with me and that’s when I began to understand God’s Word.
Through my art, which I now realise is a gift from God, He is drawing me closer to Him every day. It’s a constant learning process, but through His gift, God has opened me up to exploring my relationship with Him, through others. Some of my most poignant and eye opening conversations have come as a result of people asking about my scripture art. These experiences have opened my eyes to my need for Christian fellowship and opened my heart to recognise that I’m being called to create scripture artwork for a reason. Through His gift, I am able to share God’s Word.
I’ve just had an experience that I’m convinced God had a hand in, so I listened with my heart again and followed what He wanted me to do: For the past few weeks I’ve had this overwhelming urge to paint trees. I dreamt of it Saturday night and it was all I could think about on Sunday. Sunday evening, I opened Mercy Hill’s Vimeo page and selected a sermon at random from 4 years ago. My plan was to paint while listening to the sermon.
In the opening shot of the video I was shocked to see the lead pastor was standing in front of a an image of a tree! The words next to it read, “To Be a Tree.” He was preaching a series on Galatians 5, where we learn about the Fruit of the Spirit. The series was called “To Be a Tree” because he wanted to make sure we understood that it is out of a Spirit tree that Spirit fruit is produced. It is only through the Spirit of God in us that we are able to experience the fruit of the Spirit. I didn’t need any more prompts…it was time to start painting a tree!
It felt like this was an experience I needed to share, so I photographed my art materials and posted them on Instagram. As I was about to close the app, a photo was uploaded by Village Church Belfast, a church that my friend from Mercy Hill told me about only a few weeks ago. She found it for me because it’s part of the same global Acts 29 network that Mercy Hill is a part of and we were talking about the importance of Christian fellowship. As much as I love Mercy Hill, and can learn through the messages online, I can’t fully experience Christian fellowship with them if I can’t be there to build a relationship with their community. Perhaps the purpose of developing a devotion for Mercy Hill was to learn through them that church is meant to be a place where I can feel joy and grow closer to a loving God, instead of it just being a Sunday morning obligation.
I don’t know God’s exact plan for me, but I have a feeling that through Village Church Belfast, He’ll continue pointing me in the right direction, and to a place where I finally have the same sense of belonging, connection with Him, and fellowship with a community that I feel each time I visit Mercy Hill. I considered waiting to post my story until after I’ve attended Village Church Belfast for the first time this Sunday, but God’s direction has been so clear through this process that I’m going to trust He knows what He’s doing. I’m choosing to step out and live by faith and in doing so, I'm learning to trust and apply God’s Word.
I am so nervous, but also so excited to see what happens next!
The post above was originally written in February 2016. I transferred it over from my old website because I'm amazed by how God has been working in my life and on my heart these past few years. I know now that He has been chasing me my whole life, but this is definitely the pivotal point when I finally started letting Him in.
I recently learned something that blew my mind, yet it probably shouldn't have. God weaves our story together with a million little threads that we never see until we turn back to look at the whole picture. The night that I was painting a tree as I listened online to a 4 year old, randomly selected sermon on The fruits of the Spirit from Galatians 5, they were finishing the same sermon series at the church that God led me to and has been my home ever since. God is so good!