Most homes on my street were built in the early part of the 20th century. If you listen, you can hear their floors moan a little, like a strong, aged woman settling into a chair after dinner. The doorknobs and windows faintly rattle when cabinets close, and the ridges on painted doors reveal all the coats resting underneath.
For many years, in between two of these old houses, sat an empty lot. Filled with overgrown weeds and kudzu-swarmed trees, it adorned the street as proudly as the creaky homes. Sitting close to the railroad, metro, and major city streets, the land caught many things: whispers of commuters walking home, wrappers without crackers, shards of Coke bottles, and plastic bags fed up with flipping in the wind.
Two years ago, my house was built on this lot. It was designed to blend in with the older homes, and other than the clean, unbroken driveway, it does. Though the inside, with its smooth hinges and humming machines, reveals its true age, my house has become part of the neighborhood—and so have my husband and I.
Now that we’re settled in, we’ve begun to cut back, detangle, and clean up the brush we inherited. So far, the two of us have unearthed at least 25 glass bottles, just as many plastic bags and food wrappers, a The Incredibles toy, a grill grate, a pair of Jordans, a Hot Wheels car, and two shirts. Every time I find something new, I’m reminded of this lot’s long life, and how little of its history has anything to do with me. We call the house and grass and trees ours—and have papers to prove it—but our time here is but a stitch in its history.
Truthfully, I get the same feeling reading Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. I’m following along, connecting with His words until He blesses those who are persecuted—and suddenly I’m reading from a distance. It’s as if I’m in my backyard digging up a half-drunk bottle of Powerade, realizing how little of me is in this story.
What do I know of systemic persecution? I grew up in the southern United States, where my Christianity was not only allowed but accepted, maybe even expected. I think the most opposition I’ve faced is neighbors’ difference of opinion. But the persecution Jesus spoke of was daily, pervasive, threatening. He was referring to something I’ve encountered only in textbooks.
The persecution Jesus spoke of was daily, pervasive, threatening. He was referring to something I’ve encountered only in textbooks.
I remember the way those history books used to hang heavy on my back, so thick the spines always twisted one way or another. Every one was chock-full of political upheavals, technological developments, wars, and tragedies. But as dense as they were, each volume only glossed over the highlights of a particular region or period in time. What about the details left out, the stories untold? Still, the salvation Jesus offers us rode every one of those waves—political or cultural, persecuted or free, documented or not—for thousands of years. The lineage of those who have loved Jesus is long, like the history of this volatile world.
And that rich heritage brings us a church that is broad and robust. After years of edification in Western evangelical circles, I sometimes forget there are other ways to worship, disciple, and believe in the resurrected Son of God. A couple of years ago when the Sri Lankan church was bombed on Easter, I remember being grieved at the headlines publicizing “Christian persecution,” and then feeling a strange dissonance upon learning the church was Roman Catholic. My lack of experience with Catholicism somehow made these fellow Christians seem unrelatable. Sure, there are things we might disagree about. But how distant could we be, worshipping the same Savior?
Truthfully, I’d probably feel like an outsider in most sanctuaries around the world simply because of the church’s breadth, beautiful and complex as it is. Yet that variety and my lack of familiarity with it doesn’t preclude me or anyone else from belonging. It does, however, remind me of my smallness and how the church’s trek through centuries past, present, and future—across latitudes and longitudes—is the work of none other than a wise, persistent, and conscientious God.
When I think of the Beatitudes, and Jesus’ blessing over those who are persecuted, I recognize that, Lord willing, I’ll likely never face systemic oppression. And for that I say Amen and God protect those who do. But instead of letting this blessing make me feel distant from the body of Christ, past and present, I hope it gives me vision to see the fullness of church more clearly. To understand how believers, in our many forms and eras and styles, have endured and evolved under the Lord’s attentive care.
Illustration by Adam Cruft