58th Street church of Christ in Tampa, Florida
Mark and I were in Osprey, Florida that first Sunday after the congregation in Osprey lost their beloved preacher to a tragic drowning accident. Providence’s mercy, of course, always knows the future, so the Good Shepherd who loves the souls of this little flock in Osprey more than any human can, planned that Nathan Ward, the visiting preacher who happened to be with them the last time they endured an unexpected great loss, was again pre-scheduled to be with them to tend to their heavy hearts.
I was present to hear the skill with which he bore that heavy load, and the gentle, empathetic delivery of his sermon on the topic of what God says on suffering and knew I wanted to add to our quest to visit 100 churches of Christ, a visit to the congregation for which Nathan preaches. About a month after our Osprey visit, we did just that. It would turn out to be a special Wednesday night where we were given the privilege of observing a fresh way to encourage one another while gathering together with church family in the middle of the week.
We pulled in a little late, and as we took our seats, Nathan Ward was reading aloud a good portion of the book of First John. While the congregation listened to the text being read, they were asked to think about which hymns and spiritual songs complemented the truths within the text. After the reading, members began making their suggestions and soon the white board up front was filled with their hymn requests.
Nathan suggested that starting from the right front and slowly moving back and around the room, that whichever brother wanted to either lead one of the requested songs, or if any other brother wanted to select a complementary passage to read aloud to the congregation or if another wanted to lead a prayer, that when it seemed that brother’s turn, he could contribute however he preferred.
And so it went. One brother after another, from college student to college professor and everyone in-between, each took their turns, each in their own way, some leading songs with two hands, some with one, some leading with eyes closed in solemn emotion, and other song leaders exuding the joy of pouring out their heartfelt praise song. Everyone sort of spontaneously improvising the creating together of an hour communing with God and one another, seemed to me a unique approach that would naturally knits hearts. It was like they were all making a piece of art together that, in the end, they would all own a part of to gift to God.
As in a lot of happy families, a little inside joke began to form organically over whether a certain song book (among the a nice variety) was in fact blue or grey in color, and on occasion a song leader would announce the song number, firmly announcing the true color, as if it were a matter of faith, and we'd chuckle.
When someone now and then led a song out of turn, no one cared. Someone else requested “This Little Light of Mine” and the children seemed happy to see the adults “singing their song” with fingerplay to boot. What seemed to stand out most to me was how they clearly excelled at being flexible and honoring each other’s preferences --- which, within scriptural bounds, is exactly the kind of “tolerance” the Lord expects of us (Ephesians 4:1-3;1 Peter 3:8-11).
Nathan later told me how, some time ago, one sister requested the time of worship be changed to afternoon so she could continue to come. It worked for most everyone, but even for those with a stronger preference to keep the service times the same, in the end, they willingly sacrificed that stronger preference for the sister who needed an afternoon service in order to continue to participate. This is especially notable, given the reality of the many congregations to choose from in the area --- still, everyone accommodated, and no one left.
And because everyone accommodated, there was a "bonus prize". The new service time opened up a new opportunity that has really been perhaps one key to this congregation’s being so “hard to offend”(1 Corinthians 13:5). Now, after worship every Sunday afternoon, virtually the whole congregation gathers at the same very hospitable home each week and spends the remainder of the day together getting to know one another on a deeper level and enjoying plenty of spiritually relevant, encouraging conversation. All that time together has built a rapport, making flexibility with one another that much more pleasurable and seen more as an opportunity to show a member of the family they are loved by putting another’s interests ahead of one’s own.
There was nothing physically fancy about the meeting house --- it was tidy, humble and smaller, but there was an inner beauty about this family that was almost palpable, demonstrated at one point when a brother told his Maker in prayer, “We want to feel you, Lord”. I appreciated that and can entirely relate. Maybe one way of feeling the Lord is feeling the hearts of one another, and maybe feeling the hearts of one another requires a regular habit of spending longer stretches of relaxed time together than many of us may have previously realized.
12202 N. 58TH STREET
TAMPA, FL 33617