Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Just Another Sunday

The evening we drive into my husband's hometown, we drive up the main street and notice the new things: the fancy lamp posts, the wide sidewalks, the thriving flower boxes. We ooh and ahh over the updates--genuinely thrilled that the small town is rediscovering its charm. And we see the sad things: trees and roofs and livelihoods felled by a tornado a few weeks back. Old faithfuls taken out by a strong breeze.

We glance at but don't really talk about all of the empty storefronts. My husband nudges me, points to the large vacant spot where a bookstore and coffee shop resided the last time we were here, two long years ago. The faded sign still hangs, holding on to lost hope. I make a sad face, he makes a joke. Something about how the hipsters must not live here yet. About how this town must still be full of regular people who can't spend precious time ruminating over books and free trade coffee.

I notice this again the next morning, at church. It is an old church, with old pews and old music. I can't bring coffee into the sanctuary. There is no drummer or guitarist. There is a distinct lack of skinny jeans. A solo pianist plunks along to songs from decades ago and the pastor shortens his sermon because the vbs kids need to go and release their butterflies before they wilt away in their storage envelopes. There is barely even a message. He is wearing a tie.

And, I'm telling you, life is oozing from this place.

On a hot July Sunday morning, the wooden pews are packed tight. Young and old, rich and poor, all belong. And they are not shy. Oh, no. They stand up during that worship service and they announce things that god has done that week--ways he has blessed, places where he has been near. And they stand up and they declare that they are in need, that they can't leave without prayer. And sometimes they walk up front and allow hands to touch backs and living words to bridge the gap between god and men. There is the distinct feel of holiness to it all. God has drawn near, here in this church.

They are studying the words of James. That is what the sermon was supposed to be about, had the butterflies not taken precedent. The part of James where we are told not to favor the rich over the poor. The part where we are reminded of god's heart being with the least of these.

But they know all of this. Know it with their lives.

They are going out in droves. Daily. Welcoming neighbors to picnics. Sharing the love of god to people in prison, in nursing homes. Snuggling children close and pointing them to their father. Sharing what they have with one another, helping their brothers and sisters clear storm wreckage, pulling one another along in action and in words.

And, people, they deliver pies to visitors. Pies.

I am starting, now, to become a little embarrassed. Because a month or two ago, we told my father-in-law about how we were living missionally, now. We were building community, doing life together at a local park with others of similar vision. Reaching out without evangelizing, connecting without overwhelming. We had read all of these books and put our heads together and now, here we were, living a mission that continued to confuse and fall short of expectations. He'd wanted to know all about it, a few weeks ago. And I was sure he couldn't relate because he hadn't read the books or had the conversations, and our contexts were so starkly different.

It never occurred to me to ask about the missional lifeblood of their church. Turns out, I could have learned a lot. Turns out, community isn't built, but lived. Mission isn't sought, but received.

A woman in a yellow shirt gets up and announces that she has just received a letter and needs to read it aloud to the congregation. It is from a man who has wronged them all, a man who is not loved in this congregation. And rightfully so. Several months ago, he broke into the church and stole things, expensive things, leaving a sanctuary full of people asking, "Who would steal from a church?" Everyone around me stiffens, on guard.

The woman in the yellow shirt begins reading. She gets to the part of the letter, right there at the beginning, where the man declares that he is sorry and proclaims that he knows he can never make it up to them. He talks of burdens he will carry for the rest of his life. Of years of alcohol and drug abuse that he is trying to escape, of amends that he will make even if it kills him. Of how he hopes to come some Sunday and make it right in person. And we all realize that he must be a brave man. The woman, she stops, takes a deep breath, chokes back tears.

She and the pastor, standing there together facing the congregation, they take stock of their people and tell them what they already know: that they will welcome this man. That when he comes, they will embrace him. That as he works to pay them back, they will work beside him. That the burden he carries, they will all carry it together.

I have the sudden urge to take off my shoes. To repent. Oh, we are on holy ground, and god is passing by as we sit in these hard wooden pews among all of these regular people.

I wish I were going to be here when that man comes. I imagine how he will walk through the front door, and how his heart will probably beat fast and how he will probably want to turn around and run away, but he will choose to make things right anyway. I can see the expressions on the people's faces when they discover who he is, and I can see him standing up in front of the sanctuary saying he knows he can never repay them but he is here anyway to make it as right as a man can. I can hear his voice quivering and feel his sweaty palms.

I wish I could watch, with bated breath, as they break the news to this man: that, lo, your sins are forgiven dear one. That you are a sinner among sinners, and we are in the midst of one who transforms. That, no, of course you don't carry your burden for the rest of your life. That you can leave it right here, right now, and we will help you.

And then they will ask, what is your favorite kind of pie, friend? We will be out on Tuesday, to welcome you properly to our church.

The body of Christ. Regular folks, broken, transformed, redeemed.

Thanks be to God.


Unknown said...

I had lunch recently with the author of a book about missions. He says that while we're so busy thinking about how to bring Jesus to Central America we miss the point--that Jesus has been in Central America for dozens of years and wants us to come meet Him there.

He's right, as are you, that once we let go of the fact that a place isn't just like our church we start discovering Christ in all sorts of unexpected places. In fact, He's interested in showing us that although the Kingdom of God looks very diverse (perhaps uncomfortably so?), it is indeed one holy catholic (universal) Church.

Kristin said...

Yes! That's it!

Thanks so much for commenting.

I have to admit that I'm sitting here racking my brain to figure out who I know that might have met with the author of a missions book. I have narrowed you down to about 20 people. Haha.

Have a good night.