If I hadn’t accepted Jesus in that little house in the Catskill Mountains; if I hadn’t responded to God’s call to Israel; if I hadn’t made a life-changing decision just a few months before I met her, I wouldn’t be sitting at a table with my friend Emma in this tiny kitchen in Sweden.
Once upon a time, I was a painfully shy teenager. I hated to go through the checkout line, because then I’d have to talk to the cashier.
I could try to blame this on the fact that I was home schooled. But living in a family of 10, and moving from place to place, leaving a trail of friends all over the country, I was anything but under-socialized. Because I saw my far-flung friends multiple times a year at conventions, they felt like an extension of my own huge extended family. And wherever I went, my best friends went with me: my family, who knew me most, yet loved me most of all.
No, I can’t blame my shyness on anything other than plain old human nature. My main concern was with the way I appeared to others. Whenever I was about to say something, I was on the alert. Will this make me sound ignorant? Unspiritual? Rude?
If you’ve experienced the crippling effects of self-consciousness, then you’ll understand what it’s like to have your internal computer constantly whirring with activity: calculating the expectations of the people around you, evaluating all the words on the tip of your tongue, and generating the most pleasing response.
It was an exhausting way to live.
Then I moved to Israel. Daily surrounded by fellow students who were open and even humorous about their struggles, I was brought face-to-face with my own constant fear of appearing needy. I remembered what Jesus said: It’s from the contents of our hearts that we speak.Matthew 5:18-20 The Holy Spirit gently showed me that just like poison, whatever bad things inside me have to come out and be dealt with. The only question is when. So why not be open with my brothers and sisters in Christ, people who love me and are going through similar things themselves?
It was very clear that I had to make a choice. And, thank God, I made it! I began to purposefully lay aside my insecurities, deliberately turning from thoughts about myself to thoughts about others.
Amazing: The thing I most feared was the thing that set me free. I thought I’d be stuck with the burden of self-consciousness for the rest of my life; God thought differently. It’s true that now, more than five years later, I still have to maintain those same choices, but almost overnight, I was transformed.
It was just in time.
Gone was the comfortable bubble of fellowship in which I grew up: family, extended family, church family. I did find a measure of camaraderie at Hebrew classes, because despite the fact that we represented 10 different countries, we were all homesick, all having to become like little children to learn a new language.
But I soon found that there’s a deeper camaraderie still: the body of Christ. Here in Jerusalem, most of us believers in Jesus are outside our own fellowship bubbles. We’re realizing, possibly for the first time, what it’s like to be in the minority. And we’re ready, when we meet complete strangers who also believe, to sense an immediate family bond. It’s not something imposed from the outside, but an existing connection just waiting to be discovered.
Sure, I knew that Jesus had said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”John 13:35 But then I began meeting family everywhere: in classes, at the Western Wall, on the street, in the supermarket or at church. My new-found family members came from everywhere: Germany, Korea, Hungary, Taiwan, Russia, Ghana, Australia, Mexico and many more places. Seeing Jesus’ prediction come to life was a powerful testimony to me that God is alive and at work, all over the world.
There’s so much to learn from the body of Christ, so much diversity to enjoy, so many stories to hear. Whenever I visit my Arab Christian friend Sara,Some names have been changed to protect privacy. I always leave refreshed — not only by her warm hospitality, but by her uncluttered, fearless love for Jesus. I’m privileged to know petite Taiwanese Lei, who came fresh out of seminary to minister to Chinese workers. Jeremiah, the Nigerian pastor who endured separation from his wife and four small sons long enough to deepen his understanding of the Bible at college in Jerusalem. Aubrey, an intelligent, classy young American woman whose past bout with alcoholism has made her bold to ask the hard questions the rest of us just think. Sumiko, the tiny Japanese prayer warrior whose premature birth once crippled her heart — but who now hikes the hills of Israel with folks a third of her age. I’ve enjoyed exchanging foods with Korean friends: kimbob and kimchee for banana bread, and buttermilk pancakes — and I’ve been to an all-Korean worship service, where I didn’t need to understand a word because their hearts were written so clearly in their faces and voices.
When I see His work in His people, I see God.
If I’m surrounded by people, it’s easy to think I have fellowship. But in Greek, “fellowship” (koinonia) describes both my social and my financial involvement. It means to contribute, distribute and participate; to commune and communicate. Being in fellowship with other children of God — and with my Creator Himself — makes me a sharer, an associate, a companion, a partner and a partaker.Strong’s Concordance It looks a lot less like an occasional meeting, and a lot more like taking the plunge into the challenges and joys of a mutually committed family relationship.
True fellowship doesn’t have much to do with personality, common culture or even common interests. It has to do with Whose we are, and Who He is.
Since I am a child of God,1 John 3:1 all these frustrating, fascinating, glorious fellow creatures are my brothers and sisters. I cannot un-sister or un-brother them, any more than I can alter the basic reality of my relationship to my blood siblings: They are my family members no matter how many years, miles or even hurts pass between us. They will be my sisters and brothers when I meet them in heaven, where we’ll finally see each other fully, as we truly are.
That’s why our fellowship on earth is not about greeting one another with plastic smiles and asking, “How are you?” without stopping to wait for an answer. Neither is it a nosy inquiry into areas of others’ lives where I have not earned the right to go.
Yes, fellowship is blocked when I put up a front that says, “I have everything all together,” but I don’t think it means selfishly loading down everyone with all the details of my life, either. True fellowship stems from a balanced, others-oriented outlook, and its only source is Love Himself, and our fellowship with Him.
As a finite human being, there’s no way I can cultivate a close relationship with every fellow believer in the world. But I can practice genuineness and unselfish love on those around me, those whom God has placed in my life.
Seasons of Refreshing
Emma, my sister Kate and I sat on the grass in Independence Park one spring morning, just days after we met. Soft-spoken, but as open and straightforward as they come, Emma didn’t spare her own fumbles and fears when she told us the story of the intricate workings of God’s grace in her life, the way He brought her to the point where she could turn only to Him, and the things He arranged and turned aside so she would actually do it! I felt my confidence in our redeeming, rescuing God growing even stronger as I listened.
The story of our friendship with Emma reads rather like “The House that Jack Built.” If Kate and I hadn’t gone to Hebrew classes; if we hadn’t met our first Swedish friend, Karina; if we hadn’t been at that prayer meeting, we wouldn’t have met Emma. I can almost see God’s hand, gently nudging me towards her, and imagine Him saying delightedly, “There! Enjoy your new sister.”
And so we have: on Emma’s trip around the world, she shared Christmas with my family in the U.S. Later, she visited us there again. It made sense, then, that on my way back to Israel from my sister’s wedding, I’d think about stopping off in Sweden. It makes sense, that is, unless you know just how shy I used to be. Then it becomes a testimony to the transforming power of God.
“I rejoice at the coming of Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus,” wrote Paul, “because … they refreshed my spirit as well as yours.”1 Corinthians 16:17-18 My list of Swedish friends has grown, and besides fearless Karina and soft-spoken Emma, there’s scholarly Sebastian, steady David and his vivacious Dutch wife, Jonne. Even though their visits to Jerusalem are for spiritual refreshment, they always bring refreshing with them.
As I asked myself why I’d be audacious enough to impose myself on Emma’s hospitality, I began to wonder if it wasn’t all about me, after all. There’s no question that I’m just a jar of clay, but I do carry a great treasure. And since I’m an ambassador for the Source of encouragement, perhaps He wanted to send some to Sweden.
Actually, we’ve all been encouraged.
I love listening to my friends speak Swedish, but it’s all melodious nonsense to me, until I hear the word fika. Now, fika comes at least once into every day, and it involves coffee, tea and something sweet to eat. Like semlor, for instance: extra-large cream puff look-alikes stuffed with almond-flavored filling and topped with whipped cream. I guess you could call fika a coffee break, but it’s really so much more: relaxing with friends, as if you had all the time in the world. Or even a time for fellowship.
What does fellowship look like? I’ve mentioned good food, comparing perspectives on the world, and seeing God’s work in others’ lives. There’s also laughter. Confessing fears and concerns. Informal, spontaneous prayer. And one of my favorites: singing hymns in two languages simultaneously!
Where does it happen? No special place: out walking, perhaps. In the car. At a cafe. In the living room. Or at the kitchen table.
The results? Strengthened faith. More intelligent prayer. More prayer! And as Jesus promised, a picture to the watching world of what God’s love can be to them. Now, that’s true fellowship.
Copyright 2009 Elisabeth Adams. All rights reserved.