Monday, April 29, 2024

The Healthy Church Mindset…Foundations of Humility, Goodness, and Service

(My family and I visit our former home church in Franklin, Tennessee for Easter Sunday.) 

In the summer of 2019, my wife, Lisa, became pregnant with what we imagined would be our firstborn child. While I will not go into the vivid details about the circumstances, we experienced a miscarriage and lost what we thought would be a healthy baby girl. It was a challenging time for me as a potential father, trying to support Lisa, but honestly, I could not truly comprehend what it was like to be in her shoes. I could not place myself in the psychological distress of a willing mother who lost the child she desperately wanted and prayed for. In some ways, we expected to have a healthy child in a seamless pregnancy without any major complications. All I could do was be there for Lisa when she called my name for spousal support.

For this season, we decided to postpone my enrollment in a Communication Ph.D. program. I received multiple assistantship and scholarship offers from graduate programs around the United States. However, the timing was just not right. I contacted the schools I wished to defer my acceptance to for one year, including where I currently attend, The University of Tennessee-Knoxville (UTK).   

When our church community heard about the tragic news, many individuals responded in unexpected ways I had not previously experienced in other Christian communities. In the past, church participation has sometimes felt cold and distant. People attend church in their fancy clothes. However, service work seems secondary in many churches where entertainment takes precedence over real relationships. People come and go like a New York subway station without any real conversations or connections.

In the church we attended, the pastor and his wife had personally lost a child of their own. So, the pastor immediately reached out to me as a potential future father. The pastor’s wife immediately communicated words of encouragement to Lisa. When both the pastor and his wife expressed, “We understand what it is like to be in your shoes,” we took solace in knowing these sentiments were true. It was not just what a person was supposed to say to another person in tragedy. The pastor and his wife had been there. They knew what we were going through via firsthand experience.

So, we decided to remain in Franklin, Tennessee for one more year before venturing toward my dream of pursuing my Ph.D. Thankfully, my mother and father lived exactly 3.7 miles down the road from our small apartment. I am not sure they liked me stopping by three or more times a week, often unannounced and late at night. I am, however, confident they were blessed by my positive energy and presence, which obviously included visits with Lisa as my sidekick.

For this year of unsaid turbulence, Lisa and I grew close by getting to know one another as a newly married couple. We learned to better communicate and work through an occasional interpersonal conflict. We mourned our loss together in different ways, encouraging one another in the best ways we knew how.

Regardless of how Lisa felt about losing her firstborn child, she would not let me give up on my dream to attain a terminal degree in the field of Communication. So, just one year later in June, Lisa and I planned to relocate to Knoxville, where I would begin my Ph.D. in Communication Studies at UTK. We became Tennessee Vols enthusiasts when the Vols decided to become enthusiasts of James Cartee and his future scholastic achievements. Vols is short for Volunteers, which is the mascot for the University of Tennessee.

Lisa was pregnant with Annabelle who would soon be born in August that same summer. After a cruel summer the previous year, we felt relief when our healthy daughter was delivered at Covenant Hospital in Knoxville on August 14, 2020. Annabelle’s middle name is Merci because we knew our second-chance miracle was a merciful gift from the Lord. Just two days later, safe and sound in a secure environment, Annabelle was coming home with us!

Before leaving our Franklin community in mid-July, our church hosted a baby shower for Lisa and our new tiny human. Some of my coworkers provided a venue for the party. After the baby shower, a week later, seven male friends from the church showed up early on Saturday morning to pack a U-Haul truck before our departure to Knoxville. Some of our friends even helped me pack boxes several days before loading the truck. I never hired anyone because our friends from church showed up when I requested their presence and needed their support.

Recently, when Lisa and I went home to Franklin for Easter weekend to visit my parents, we attended the Easter church services in our old faith community. It was as if nothing had changed. Since I am now graduating this May with my Ph.D., several friends checked in on my degree progress, possible relocation, and the looming job search. As I was leaving, the pastor chased us down to say “Hello” to Lisa, me, and our two children, Annabelle and Jace.

Based on their actions and supportive words, this specific Christian community resembles a vibrant church through the representation of three classic virtues: humility, goodness, and service. In these described experiences, I realized that a healthy church embodies these three ideals that are often mentioned throughout Scripture. When Lisa and I lived in Franklin, our home church personified these characteristics, which I will further elaborate with the following observations.

Finding a church community where one feels connected and supported can indeed be a challenging journey. It's not just about attending a place of worship; it's about finding a family of faith where one can grow spiritually and thrive in their relationship with God and others. In this search, the qualities of humility, goodness, and service for others within a church body play a crucial role. In my Christian journey, this kind of church community has been a rare occurrence.

First, a humble church recognizes its dependence on God and acknowledges its imperfections. Humility fosters an environment where everyone, regardless of background or status, is valued and respected. In a humble church, there is an absence of pride and self-righteousness, replaced instead by a spirit of openness and acceptance. Members are quick to admit their faults, extend forgiveness, and offer grace to one another, creating a safe and welcoming space for all.

Philippians 2:3-4 reminds Christians to consider the following: "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others" (NIV).

Related to these verses and a welcoming church body, a humble church fosters an environment of vulnerability and authenticity. Its members are unafraid to admit their struggles and shortcomings, knowing that true growth and healing come through honesty and transparency. This vulnerability creates space for genuine connection and support, as individuals can share their joys and sorrows without fear of judgment or condemnation. In embracing vulnerability, a humble church cultivates a culture of grace and understanding.

Second, a church body characterized by goodness radiates the love and compassion of Christ in every interaction and endeavor. Goodness goes beyond mere adherence to religious practices; it permeates the atmosphere, creating an environment where grace and mercy abound. In a church body marked by goodness, members are known not only for their faith but also for their genuine care for one another and the broader community.

Galatians 6:10 states, "Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers" (NIV).

The goodness of a healthy church body is evident in its commitment to living out the teachings of Jesus Christ. It is a place where individuals are inspired to embody the virtues of kindness, generosity, and empathy in their everyday interactions. Whether through organized outreach programs or spontaneous acts of compassion, members of a good church actively seek opportunities to alleviate suffering, uplift the downtrodden, and spread the message of God's love.

Third, concerning a healthy church body, service to others is a joyful expression of love and commitment to following the example of Jesus Christ. Service permeates every aspect of the church's life, from its worship gatherings to its outreach initiatives. Members are encouraged and empowered to use their unique gifts and talents to bless others and make a positive impact in their communities.

The service within a healthy church body is characterized by selflessness and humility. Rather than seeking recognition or accolades, members roll up their sleeves and get involved in meeting the practical and spiritual needs of those around them. Whether it's preparing meals for the homeless, visiting the sick and elderly, or mentoring youth, every act of service is done with a genuine desire to demonstrate the love of Christ and make a difference in the lives of others.

1 Peter 4:10-11 declares, “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ” (NIV).

The service within a healthy church body is marked by collaboration and unity. Members work together as a team, pooling their resources and talents to accomplish shared goals and objectives. There is a spirit of mutual support and encouragement, as individuals cheer each other on and celebrate the successes and victories of their fellow believers.

Conclusively, the service within a healthy church body reflects the heart of God, who calls His people to love and serve one another as an outpouring of their love for Him. It is a tangible expression of the gospel message, which compels us to reach out to the marginalized, the oppressed, and the hurting with compassion. As members of such a community, we are called to be salt and light in the world, shining brightly and seasoning the earth with acts of service that bring glory to God and draw others into His kingdom.

For some of the latest pictures of the Cartee family, here are some of our most recent memories.

(Annabelle is still intimidated by mascots. Jace gladly jumps into the arms of the Easter bunny.)

(Annabelle eats cereal with her Daddy and a little milk on her chin.)

(Like Annabelle, Jace loves going down the slides with Lisa at any playground.)

(Annabelle smiles before sliding down.)

(Jace pets a puppy at the Big Ridge State Park campground.)

(Annabelle hiked about two miles with Lisa and me at Big Ridge State Park. I was very proud of her efforts to keep up!)

 (Jace actively wakes up a tired Mommy on a Saturday morning when sleeping in no longer exists.)

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Note: Many of these pictures are often taken on a cell phone. Therefore, their quality is lacking compared to my real DSLR model cameras.