As worshippers entered the sanctuary there were smiles, hugs, handshakes, and laughter. Pews and heartd were filled to capacity before the service of worship was even begun. And what a worship service it was! In our non-denominationalism we had elements from various Christian traditions: Liturgy, Holy Communion, praise and worship music, scripture reading, a sermon. It came together perfectly.
As the worshippers left on this particular Sunday, many spoke of how moving and inspiring the words and music had been. They spoke of the warmness of the welcome and how freely the Spirit seemed to move. As they all trickled by me, deep within my heart, pride blossomed. Had I not helped in selecting the music for this day? Were not those life-giving prayers written by me? Didn’t I pick the Bible readings? And that sermon! Was it not an oratory masterpiece ? Sure, I coyly deflected the compliments that came my way. No one gets ahead by being too brazen. But inside I was one smug son-of-a-gun. The more people gushed the more “humble” I became. And the more people gushed the more my private arrogance grew.
A lady approached me reading eloquently from the script of flattery. I felt my shirt collar tighten once more as my head continued to swell. But when she added, “However, I must tell you something,” I should have remembered that “pride goeth before a fall.” With a dancing grin on her face, the kind of grin that said she already knew the not-yet-delivered punch line, she relayed to me her worship experience. As she sat through my illustrious sermon she happened to glance out the huge church window positioned to her immediate left.
There, just on the other side of the glass was my son, Braden, only four at the time, playing on the lawn. He was in his own precocious world: Picking a flower here and there, doing cartwheels, tossing stones, lost in his imagination. Then, nature called. This son of mine looked to the right and he looked to the left. When he was reasonably certain of solitude, he dropped his pants and relieved himself on the church wall, oblivious to the hundreds of worshippers behind the glare of the church windows. As this parishioner cackled, told her story and walked away, the loud hissing sound that filled the now empty sanctuary was my deflating ego. I was mortified.
The prophet Isaiah spoke of the future kingdom of God as a place where a “little child shall lead” around the ferocious animals of the jungle as if they were family pets. I am certain he did not have my son in mind. Still, the prophecy rang true on this particular Sunday. Inside the church I was committing the sacrilege of pride, taking tribute that belonged only to God. Outside, my son was lost in Eden-like innocence. The inside of my heart was filled with ferocious self-importance and overconfidence. The inside of his heart was filled with disarming purity and a clearness of conscience.
Which is worse? Indiscretion and poor manners performed out of innocence, or public showmanship that is driven by arrogance and pride? I learned all too quickly the answer: A pierced ego is good medicine for the soul. Yes, sometimes everything comes together perfectly: In life, at home, even in church. I had one of those perfect Sunday mornings not long ago. My little boy placed his collar around my neck and gently led me home.
I waited beneath the funeral canopy with drops of perspiration collecting in the small of my back. It was warm, but not particularly hot. Still, my dark suit and nerves were conspiring with the weather to suffocate me. Funerals, neckties, and mourners always raise my temperature. It’s probably due to the fact that as a minister I am sometimes forced into the impossibility of speaking a bit of comfort at the most difficult time. Gathered under that tent was a new widow; mourning children; heartbroken grandchildren; and an eclectic collection of friends, distant relatives, and neighbors come to pay their last respects. Together we endured the heat and the grief.
The deceased was a near stranger to me. I did not know him well, but I was with him, his wife and son, when he died. As he drew his last breath we read from the Psalms and said our prayers. Now, we were repeating that ritual at burial. After the service the family did what families often do at a time like this. They sat down to a great meal. Invited to join them, I accepted. At the table everyone began that healing ritual of eating and remembrance. Laugh. Remember. Eat. Cry. Heal.
As I was leaving the restaurant the son of the departed stuffed an envelope into my hand. I knew it was the traditional honorarium for leading the funeral service. After more than fifteen years of doing this sort of thing I still don’t know how to react to this kind of gift. Sure, if I perform a wedding ceremony, I’m happy to be compensated. That seems fair enough, especially with the rising price of gasoline. But a funeral always stumps me. So on this day I tried to give it back. The son refused.
“You don’t know how much I appreciate this,” he said. “Dad was a part of church for years but had not attended since he got sick. He and mom really don’t have a pastor. And me, well, I haven’t gone to church in years.” Maybe it was the openness of the luncheon just shared or the unique intimacy of having been with this son as his father died, but I suddenly felt emboldened (or comfortable) enough to ask the obvious question: “Why don’t you attend church anymore?” He screwed up his mouth beneath his mustache for a moment and answered, “Understand, I don’t have anything against religion. The church and I just grew apart. Maybe, I outgrew the church.”
There are scores and scores of people just like this man who have unplugged themselves from the institutional church. They do so for various reasons. Some, a terribly small number, lose faith completely. Again, this is a minuscule number. Others get angry or hurt with church leadership, or they become disillusioned with the structure or a particular denomination. But some “leavers” – a great many I believe – depart with an authentic faith and develop a healthier, happier, more hopeful perspective than many of us who fill the pew each Sunday.
These leavers love their families and their neighbors. They are people of generosity, integrity and joy. They worship their God and cling to Christ. They simply have found church, in their experience, to be unhelpful to their spiritual well-being. Alan Jamieson has written extensively on this subject. In his book A Churchless Faith, he says, “We need to realize that God is in the questions as well as they answers and that living with the questions is part of the journey.” We who feel at home in the church sanctuary must also learn that these beautiful lambs of God are still in his fold; even if they choose not to sleep in the barn every night.
Some concepts are almost impossible to define; words like hope, love, happiness, or faith. And while these are terms we are all familiar with – we use these words every day – we sometimes struggle to say what they really mean. They are simply too intangible and abstract to communicate properly. It is easy to find ourselves in the shoes of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart. Fifty years ago Justice Stewart famously said of pornography: “I could never succeed in defining it, but I know it when I see it.” Such a characterization applies to much more than obscenity.
Take another word as an example: Forgiveness. It is far more than an idea, more than a theoretical concept or a definition inside a dictionary. It is nothing less than a miracle best understood by seeing and experiencing it, not simply talking about it. I first “saw” forgiveness in a woman named Corrie Ten Boom. No, I never met her, but as a child I heard about her at least once a month in my Sunday School class. She and her family were Dutch Christians who hid Jews in their home during the Second World War. Corrie’s memoir, The Hiding Place, records those events. Eventually the Nazis discovered the Ten Boom’s secret and the family was arrested. Corrie and her sister Betsie were sent to Ravensbruck. By the end of the war, only Corrie had survived. Corrie came out of that awful experience saying, “There is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still” and “God will give us the love to be able to forgive our enemies.” Those words were put to the test a few years later.
After the war Corrie Ten Boom began traveling around Europe speaking to faith groups about her experience. She was in a Munich church sharing her message of forgiveness when she recognized a man in the crowd. He was a balding heavy-set German in a gray overcoat, clutching a brown felt hat in his hands. Corrie knew immediately that this man had been a guard at the Ravensbruck concentration camp. The man walked up to Corrie and admitted his past sins and his past vocation. He said, “I have become a Christian and know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well.” He extended an open hand and asked Ten Boom: “Will you forgive me?”
Here is where words fail, for in that moment, Corrie could not forgive. In her memoir she wrote, “Betsie had died in that place; could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking? While only seconds, it seemed like hours passed as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do…the coldness clutching my heart. ‘Jesus, help me!’ I prayed silently. So woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place…This healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. ‘I forgive you, my brother!’ I cried. For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love as intensely as I did then.”
What Corrie Tem Boom did that day cannot be found, explained, or otherwise described in a dictionary. It can only be witnessed, marveled at, and experienced. When one suffers an incalculable loss and is able to respond with compassion and grace (there’s another indescribable word) rather than revenge or resentment, it is a miracle performed by God himself. Thus, such forgiveness is not achieved by trying harder, studying more, or understanding the whole notion a little better. It’s achieved by God – sometimes in spite of us – when we simply extend our empty hands and let God’s mercy flow through to others. No, I can’t explain it. I don’t have words for such an experience. I can’t always understand it; but I certainly know it when I see it.